Bryon Widner used to be a skinhead white supremacist. He filled his face with hateful tattoos that representing his violent actions and cruelty towards others. After years of being in that group, Bryon left and started a family. Trying to leave that life behind, he starts the process of removing his face tattoos. Director Bill Brummel documented this process capturing a really powerful story about redemption with the movie Erasing Hate. We talked to Bill about the bond he created with Bryon and the difficulty of filming lasers.
Heartland: Bryon Widner is the perfect documentary subject. How did you hear about his story?
Bill: I have a close working relationship with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Morris Dees, the Center’s co-founder has appeared in a few of my previous films. In late 2008 I received a call from Richard Cohen, the President of the Law Center, telling me about Bryon’s story and letting me know that SPLC had decided to pay for his tattoo removal. He asked if I thought it might make a good film. I jumped at the story. The metaphor was almost too good to be true, the tattoo removal being the outward sign of an inner transformation. But before moving forward, I had to be convinced that Bryon could carry a film. To do that, I flew to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to meet him and his family. Bryon was so articulate and passionate, yet clearly struggling with the demons from his past. His lovely family was an added bonus. After just one day with them, it was full speed ahead with the film.
Heartland: During his sessions with the plastic surgeon, everyone is wearing goggles because they are dealing with laser. Did that ever affect your equipment? What was it like filming those sequences? Especially watching him go through such pain?
Bill: It was very difficult to see Bryon suffer so intensely. It was incongruous to see this tough guy, with his violent past, cringing in agony during and after the procedures. But I see the pain Bryon endured as his penance. We all make mistakes. We all are in need of redemption at times in our lives. Now Bryon’s mistakes were written all over his face, and they were more serious than the ones most of us make. But I don’t think that should not deny him a shot at forgiveness and redemption, especially if he is sincere in his desire to change and to make amends for his past sins.
We did have a scare with the camera equipment. We used a Panasonic VariCam as our lead camera, and a Panasonic HDX-170 as the second camera. When shooting the third treatment, Kevin O’Brien, my cinematographer, noticed in his viewfinder some odd streaks shooting out from the laser. When we played back the footage that night, those streaks appeared as giant green lightning bolts in the image. That footage was unusable and we became concerned this would happen a lot. But the problem only surfaced when a certain laser was used, and when it was set at specific wavelength. The medical team often adjusted the laser type and wavelengths, dependent on the color of the ink and its intensity. Fortunately the cameras never sustained any damage.
The goggles presented a challenge for our photographers but they did a tremendous job overcoming that obstacle.
Heartland: At one point, one of the nurses talk about how she felt more comfortable with Bryon as he was losing his tattoos and it’s not clear on whether it was because he was in a better mood or she was able to see him as more beyond the tattoos. How did your relationship evolve with Bryon over the course of filming?
Bill: Of course in the beginning there was a little internal discomfort for some on the Vanderbilt University Medical Center team. But they were so professional. I can say with complete confidence that from day one, Dr. Bruce Shack and his staff looked beyond the tattoos to see the real human being under the ink. They never treated Bryon differently than they any other patient. And as the months of treatments passed, a deep bond developed between Bryon and Julie and many on the staff. You can see that connection in the emotional goodbye at the final treatment.
Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to become so fond of Bryon and Julie and their family. Bryon represented so many things that I despised. But I am also a believer in second chances. In the early stages of the treatments, I was concerned Bryon would give up simply because the pain was just too extreme. But he was so determined to change his life that he wouldn’t allow himself to quit. And he did it not only for himself, but for his wife and family. I respect that. They have become my friends.
Heartland: Has this film been screened to other members of the ex-skinhead community? How have they reacted to it?
Bill: I can’t say for certain whether anyone from the white nationalist movement has attended a screening. If one or more has, none of them have approached me to discuss the film. However there has been plenty of hostility expressed toward Bryon on skinhead and other white power websites.
This is important. It took an extreme amount of courage for Bryon and Julie to do this film. It’s not easy to get out of the movement. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Joe Roy says it so well in the film, “Skinheads believe death before dishonor and dishonor is when someone leaves the movement.” And in fact, Bryon faced death threats when he got out. And we knew that doing the movie could open him up to more threats. Before we started filming, I had several sober discussions with Bryon and Julie about the possible ramifications of participating.
But Bryon was steadfast in his reasons for wanting to share his story with the world. He wants to show people who feel trapped inside the white power movement, that there is a way out. And just as importantly, he hopes to convince others not to join the movement in the first place. It’s a cautionary tale. And Bryon and Julie have risked their own safety to try to keep others out of the same dead-end life they lived and then escaped.
Heartland: Are you working on a next project?
Bill: As they say, I have several projects in development! So for now, mum is the word on those. I have been working on finding international and other distribution outlets for Erasing Hate.
Heartland: What were some moving films that inspired you as a filmmaker?
Bill: I am inspired by so many films. It’s tough to single them out but here are a few. As a student of the Civil Rights movement, Eyes on the Prize and The Untold Story of Emmett Till are both terrific. Others films on my list would have to include The War Room, Bowling for Columbine, Jesus Camp, The Tines of Harvey Milk, No End in Sight, When We Were Kings, and on the lighter side, Wordplay.
And has a music lover, my list must include The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, Don’t Look Back, Shut Up and Sing, and more recently Living in the Material World, Martin Scorsese’s wonderful film about George Harrison.
You can purchase tickets for Erasing Hate for the following days…
– Sunday October 21 at 2 p.m. at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
– Tuesday October 23 at 7:30 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
– Thursday October 25 at 2:45 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
– Friday October 26 at 1:15 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
Interview conducted by Austin Lugar