The Story Behind the Story: Mind Over Battle

In the fall of 2015, I got the best phone call. I was in Los Angeles deep into post production on my first documentary film The Pamoja Project when John called with the magic words all producers like to hear. There was a whiff of a story and serious interest from Al Jazeera Witness.

Al Jazeera Witness is an inspiring documentary series that brings world issues into focus through compelling human stories. They’ve produced and acquired incredible films (including our film Leh Wi Tok in 2011) that span continents and transcend language, getting to the core of what people care about. For filmmakers, it’s a dream to distribute a film through Al Jazeera, and the opportunity was heartening.  

In most cases, independent filmmakers either stumble upon, chase, or stalk fascinating stories and subjects. They may follow a subject for a few years, then spend a few more years finishing the film, and then spend even more years trying to find distribution or self-distributing. 

In this case, we were working backwards. The story was about moving beyond gang related trauma and violence. My job? Find the subject, pitch the story, make the film. 

After hitting a dead end in Philadelphia, our Executive Producer from Al Jazeera suggested that we check out Homeboy Industries. I was familiar with Homeboys — not far from where I was living, Homeboy’s was this incredible community for formally gang-involved and previously incarcerated men and women. They provided classes, employment, tattoo removal, and most importantly - the Homegirl Cafe where they sold the best cinnamon raison bread in Los Angeles. 

After a few phone calls and some persistent texts, I was able to get a meeting with Hector Verdugo, the Chief Trainee Director at Homeboys, and tell him what we were up to. Hector could not have been more gracious and supportive. After a few conversations, he introduced me to Javier.

I remember walking away from my first coffee with Javier feeling like I had just met a real life Yoda (a very big Yoda with tattoos and a huge smile). I ran to my car and quickly typed up everything I could remember from our conversation. One of those notes read: “Wants people to know we are all the same. That jail or no jail, we’ve all felt pain and fear… This is the question I ask myself every day: ‘If you could wake up and be living the life exactly as you want it, what would it look like? Then I set goals and do it.’”

After that meeting the pitch came together quickly and we secured the green light to start production. Making a film is always challenging, but in working with Javier there was an inherent and welcome ease to the process. Javier was a natural storyteller and was able secure key access to locations and people all over Los Angeles. While in many ways this story was challenging to tell authentically, it was also a complete joy to film. 

Mind Over Battle aired on Al Jazeera in the spring of 2017. It is still available to watch online and recently was chosen to be featured on Al Jazeera Selects. We’ve remained friends with Javier and recently caught up with him this fall. Joking over sushi (his favorite), I remembered how much on an honor it is to tell peoples stories and how grateful I am for this one. 

-Audrey Emerson