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    « Another Free West Hollywood Screening Courtesy of ITVS | Main | Interview: Marcy Garriott, Director INSIDE THE CIRCLE »

    January 19, 2008


    A First-time Filmmaker Captures the Horrors of his Friend’s Heroin Detox in Hairkutt, then Captures the Attention of the New York Museum of Modern Art

    It’s a long way from the streets of inner-city St. Louis, Missouri to the trendy west side of Manhattan, New York City. It’s an even longer stretch to imagine the first film by a product of those tough streets would by courted by the prestigious NY Museum of Modern Art. As improbable as it sounds, that’s exactly what has happened to Curtis Elliott and Ben Scholle, the Co-Directors of their gritty documentary Hairkutt, the true story of one man’s life and death battle against heroin and his friends’ daring move to save him.

    Curtis Elliott didn’t set out to make a movie for the fame, the money, or even for the art. He wasn’t a filmmaker at all, having never shot anything other than the typical birthday party and backyard bar-b-que. He was driven to make a very particular film for a very specific reason: “I made Hairkutt simply because I wanted to save lives.”

    While a teenager in decaying, inner-city St. Louis MO, Elliott watched the drug culture quickly engulf the community. He reflects, “My whole neighborhood got addicted to heroin. The crack epidemic was in full swing and my friends got into it, they were kids as young as 13, and they had it going on, a non stop crack spot behind my friend’s house.”

    Elliott managed to sidestep the drug use epidemic, but not without his own brushes with the law. He served in the US Army, completed his college education, and began raising a son. The neighborhood environment was a difficult one in which to teach a child that drugs destroy lives. “How could I convince my own son to say no to this drug when so many people around him were using it? I saw the look of disbelief in my child’s eyes every time I gave him the sermon about making the right decisions.”

    Elliott’s son knew the subject of the film, Bryant “Hairkutt” Johnson very well, as the addicted barber made his way up and down the neighborhood streets each day, cutting hair to get money for his daily fix. “I wanted my son to understand there was another side to Bryant than the smiling man who cut his hair, a man who would call me in the morning, in tears, needing twenty dollars to get his fix.”

    Elliott and Johnson had been friends for a long time, and it pained him to watch Johnson, in the grips of his addiction, spiral downward over the years. Desperate and determined to help his friend, and hopefully others, Elliott made a bold decision to intervene: “Watching Bryant and others like him suffer this slow death was my call to action.”

    Elliott and two other men, all good friends to each other and Johnson, but none of whom had any medical training, implored Johnson to let them help him quit heroin cold turkey. Their plan sounded risky, even dangerous, but they were committed to the idea that if Johnson could get clean with the help of friends who cared about him, he would be able to turn his life around. Filming the detoxification process would also hopefully serve the larger community, by providing a “scared straight” message to youth at risk for drug use. Desperate for help, with no other resources available other than the love of his friends, Johnson agreed.

    No one involved could predict how this experiment would end. Would Johnson find the strength to kick his habit with his friends’ help? Would the situation become life-threatening? Would trying to film very personal, potentially dangerous moments, with no experience, no crew, and three consumer-grade video cameras prove disastrous?

    It was a risk the four friends decided to take. Despite the potential for tragedy, the possibility that Johnson could kick his habit was well worth taking the chance. In 2002, they traveled to a rented cabin in a remote area of the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee.

    The group returned from the cabin to St. Louis with more than 200 hours of raw footage. “I started the task of cutting and editing, which turned out to be a bigger job than filming”, says Elliott. “I realized I needed help and that is when I found Ben.”

    Ben Scholle, who co-directed and produced the film, admits being initially turned off by some of the footage, but eventually “I began to imagine interviews cut in with the grizzly detox footage, and the more I heard, the more compelling the story sounded,” he says. “I had just seen Capturing the Friedmans and assembling a powerful film out of found footage and a story of a character in crisis seemed very possible.”

    When asked if he would have preferred to be on the trip to the cabin to shoot the film the right way, Scholle resolutely answers “Absolutely not. The video they took exudes that inexperienced-but-sincere feeling. Besides, everyone there was open and honest for the camera because they were comfortable with each other. My being there with a big camera would have ruined that.”

    Elliott reminisces about the experience and finishing the film: “I’m still amazed by the scenes of Bryant writhing in agony on that bed. I have a lot of empathy for him and for his condition. I’ve had many opportunities to just walk away from this project. Some people around me have been unsupportive. But this adversity only strengthens my resolve. Every time the film is screened, young people come up to me and say after seeing it, they’ll never use the drug.”

    Hairkutt has toured the festival circuit the last eighteen months, picking up Best Documentary, Audience Choice Award at the International Black Film Festival; Director’s Award at the Hearts and Mind Film Festival; Best Documentary Award at the St. Louis Filmmakers’ Showcase; and Best Social Documentary Award at the New York Independent and International Film Festival. It has garnered critical acclaim from The Boston Globe, The Utah Daily Chronicle, CinemaATL and other critics.

    Now available nationwide on DVD through such major retailers as Amazon and Netflix, perhaps the most prestigious of screenings yet of Hairkutt will occur February 24 at 2 PM, when it shows in NY at MOMA’s Documentary Fortnight Exhibition.

    Sally Berger, MOMA’s Assistant Curator for Film, says Hairkutt was invited to exhibit because “We felt it was an unusual topic that we had never seen before covered in documentary, and we felt it was from a very personal perspective, and from that point of view it seemed very important to include it. People who are struggling with drug addiction and their friends who are struggling alongside them are not often seen telling the story in their own words. It was a very brave thing for everyone involved in the film to agree to, and we’re delighted to have it in the program.”

    Elliott and Scholle plan to attend the MOMA screening and take part in a post-screening discussion with the audience. It will be a long journey for them, one they never imagined back in 2002 when Elliott loaded his car with cameras and his friends headed to that remote mountaintop cabin to help their heroin-addicted friend kick his heroin habit cold turkey. Ultimately, making Hairkutt to help to save lives may have also opened new doors and perhaps launched a new vocation for a first-time filmmaker from St. Louis.

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