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  • Heather Marchek-Lopez

Seeing Belonging for the first time

I've watched Michael D. McCarty's story for our series about 2 dozen times by now. Through and through. I've taken countless screen shots for promotion, I've lifted inspiring quotes for various posts, I've paused the footage on and off to take notes for flyers, pieces of correspondence, and even for our editor's alterations, and I've listened to it while in another room to get myself in a positive state of mind before I schedule a new screening. I'm pretty familiar with Michael's hilarity and moments of introspection by now, to say the least.

But to watch Michael's story with a live audience (and alongside Arielle) is to watch it for the first time. On Saturday, Sept. 15th, I had the privilege to attend the Oak Park International Film Festival at the Oak Park Public Library, hosted by Stan West. This would be the first time I would have had the chance to see our episode outside of my home office and to observe how other people understood and felt about all of our hard work.

Arielle and I sat in the VERY last row of the large room so that we could take in, inconspicuously, of course, everyone's reactions and the big picture of the festival itself. The attendees were engaged with all of the film pieces, and I eagerly awaited their responses to Michael's story, which, I assumed would be similar to those of the other documentaries.

They were not similar. People were hanging on to every single minute and soaking up this experience with all the enthusiasm and awe a filmmaker and her assistant could hope for. I looked around me to see that throughout the entire 60 minutes, people were fully invested, and it was evident in their bodies: unblinking eyes, relaxed limbs, nodding heads, and elated faces. And, of course, consistent sounds of laughter. An overwhelming pride for what we are doing with this Belonging project washed over me, and I was filled with happiness for Arielle and our team.

But what surprised me the most were my own reactions to Michael's story. I had seen it over and over, but to see it in the company of others who also appreciated his candidness, his resilience, and his revelations about his purpose in life -- it was a moment of true community for me. In that moment, as we learned about Michael's journey, we were reflecting on our own - and all at the same time. A roomful of strangers, some whose stories actually do intersect with Michael's and others whose stories only run parallel, were examining their own lives and recognizing just how many fears, challenges, and triumphs are shared by every single person on the planet.

Why didn't this don on me before? Why haven't I felt a sense of belonging and community with the hundreds of people who, I know, have watched the episode too? Because there is something sacred about watching the human experience with other humans - in the flesh, in the same breathing space. There is a mutual understanding that we are all connected, across all lines and boxes. Michael's story was able to seep into me and I was able to learn from his life in brand new ways because I was feeding on the energy of everyone else doing the exact same thing.

If you haven't seen Michael's story, you must. You can sign up for our newsletter and get access to the episode to watch at home during one of our online screening weekends, which we schedule fairly frequently. However, if you can see it at one of our live screenings (which are coming to libraries and other venues near you!), then there is no question - this is the way to experience it. Michael's charisma will fill every corner of the space; you'll be immersed in the positive energy of the strangers sitting beside you; and you'll feel inspired to reflect on your own life experiences and the common stories we share as human beings. Afterwards, Arielle will guide you through a light-hearted but thought-provoking deep talk that will put it all in perspective and motivate you to share this idea of radical empathy with the very next person you encounter.

Stan West, who orchestrated and hosted Saturday's festival, recently contributed this article to the Chicago Tribune, and it's an entertaining summary of all the film pieces that converged that day: More in Common than in Conflict Was the Film Fest Theme.

I think the title says it perfectly - these films about unheard voices, resistance, and adversity juxtaposed with each other were more of a reminder of what we share as humans than of what divides us, which seems to be spoon-fed to us constantly these days. Belonging in the USA was included among pieces whose subjects ranged from shocking and disturbing to heartwarming and elevating. I can't stress enough how inspiring it is to watch these films in the company of others, even when you're fighting for the arm rest and struggling to hear over ringing cell phones. It's all part of the big picture - we're flawed, we're works in progress, and we're learning as we go - but we're all connected.

If you're in the LA area, join us for our next screening at the Echo Park Film Center on Sept. 27th. And stay tuned for more to come!

Thanks for reading :)

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