Brian Lindstrom, a Portland native, Lewis & Clark graduate, and prominent cinéma vérité filmmaker recently returned to his old campus for a screening of his work, “Finding Normal,” a film exploring drug use and rehabilitation in the Portland area. The Pioneer Log interviewed him, along with friend and significant figure in the movie, David Fitzgerald, on life, the role of film and giving back to the community.
Pioneer Log: To tie in Lewis & Clark, how did LC influence your career? There isn’t a film program here, so how did [your career] work out the way it did?
Brian Lindstrom: Well, I transferred into Lewis & Clark as a junior and, as I mentioned, I’m the first member of my family to go to college, I put myself through college by working the summers in a salmon cannery in Alaska, and so, I transferred into Lewis & Clark and I kinda felt like I had landed on Mars because there were kids talking about going to something called “boarding school” or trust funds and I just felt like, “What the hell am I doing here?” And I’ll never forget one day, you know, like my second week in school I was sitting in the, do they still call it the Trail Room? Yeah so I’m eating in the Trail Room at lunch and I was thinking, “What am I doing here?” When Stuart Kaplan just happened to walk by and simply asked, “Hey, how’s it going?” and he sat down and talked and, just him showing an interest in me and just his kind of ability to both teach film but also engage with me on a personal level was just… transformative. I felt like suddenly, “Oh, I do belong here” and, you know, “this is a great place for me.” He taught me so much and he, at the end of the… (sic) after taking all the video courses he gave me a scholarship to a film class at the Northwest Film Center.
You know, I just can’t say enough about how Stuart impacted my life, in fact, Friday night at the convention center I was given an award by the ACLU of Oregon and Stuart introduced me, so it’s all full circle, I’m just forever grateful. And I also think that Stuart’s impact on my life urged me to make films about people who have similar impacts on other people’s lives which is, I think, largely why I made Finding Normal, to show how David and is colleagues truly heal people, help heal people, and that has a ripple effect that is bigger than just that person or just that person’s family, I mean it really impacts all of society, because that healing ripple, it changes things, it makes people able to be their better, truer selves.
PL: Can I ask you about your story, David?
David Fitzgerald: Well, I was raised here in Portland. I was born into a… situation that I see now wasn’t quite fair. I was raised poor, with struggling parents, in bad areas. I didn’t have much of an influence, other than, “go on, beat it, get outta here, do whatever you want.” And I went down the wrong road, and spend most of my life in foster care, or one institution or another, starting all the way back to Juvenile Hall, JDH, from there to MacLaren school for boys, from there to the county jail, from there to the Oregon State Correctional Institution, from there to the Oregon State penitentiary.
I’m 66 years old, I’ve spent 30 plus years locked up. All of that didn’t sit well with me, even though that’s what I did, I was always trying to figure out why I was like that, and, and I came to a conclusion that some of us were just born and that’s the way our lives were supposed to be. But I was wrong.
I had a parole officer that saw something in me, and she sent me to treatment at a certain time in my life, and it was good timing, because something happened for me in that place, I saw, from being there, the result of that was an accumulation of my life up to that point and that I wanted out. I wanted something different. I saw that example in another human being in a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, that gave me enough hope, that if he could make the change then maybe, just maybe I could. I had hope and I thought “maybe” and so I started fighting for my life. That was 20 years ago and I got clean, and I’ve stayed clean ever since, I’ve worked at the recovery mental program for about 16 years, I’m married, I have a child who’s a good kid, he’s an honor student at St. Helens middle school. And yeah, that’s pretty much my story.
PL: It sounds like you guys are pretty interested in that “healing ripple effect” that you were talking about before. What made you chose film for [fulfilling that purpose]?
BL: Well the thing I like about film is that, especially with Cinéma vérité documentaries (a style of documentary attempting to achieve authenticity while understating the presence of the filmmaker), I have, the potential at least, the opportunity, to kind of get out of the way and just show David and these other people in action, and you have those unscripted real-life moments that you can never create on your own, they wouldn’t have the authenticity. It’s an unfiltered look at worlds that people often don’t get to see, and I feel like that’s what film can offer, it can take you into someone’s world and kind of, poetically, narratively, and magically, without you even realizing it, challenging you to broaden your scope of empathy, and so suddenly you understand, perhaps, why people behave the way they do, and the difference between you and then gets minimized. And when that difference is minimized, I feel like true change can happen. Because suddenly it’s not “oh those people”, it’s like you see yourself in them, and you’re more likely, I think, to understand them and extend them, you know, the empathy and consideration that they all deserve.
PL: Finally, what advice would you have for young people today, either Lewis & Clark students or otherwise?
DF: In my opinion, if there’s any one thing that matters in all of this, it’s not money, its not fame and it’s not anything other than what is it that you’ve done that has been a benefit to somebody else, period. If anything matters, [helping others] matters more than anything else.
BL:(Laughs) What he said.