Not long after moving to Atlanta I traveled to Milledgeville, Georgia to visit the home of Flannery O’Conner, one of my favorite fiction writers. Little did I know that I would be back some years later shooting a film. A documentary film that is. (Although I’ve always focused on narrative storytelling, I somehow keep falling into documentaries.) This particular project came about as I was asked to take some photographs for a magazine article at a place called Comfort Farms in Milledgeville. I meet Jon Jackson, the founder of the farm, who tells me how after serving six tours in the desert as a U.S. Army Ranger and losing a bunch of buddies along the way, he sat in his room watching his last sunset, gun in his lap, feeling like he’d lost what it means to be a warrior—ready to end it all. But his young son walked in the room. Soon after he came to a realization. After some trial and error he developed a therapy program that uses agriculture and farming to help veterans transition back into society. Before meeting Jon, the author of the article I was taking photos for suggested Jon and the farm would make for a good documentary. My initial thoughts said no, simply because I jumped straight to the cliche: A film about veterans and PTSD, aren’t there enough of those already? Not that the issue isn’t important. It’s extremely important. But what else could I offer it? After visiting the farm I realized that my prejudgment had gone against one of my favorite quotes about “going around knowing too much that isn’t so”. I had a change of heart. Talking to Jon I learned that although PTSD is a real thing, it’s only one of many things leading to the post-war death of so many of his military brothers and sisters. At war you have a clear and defined mission, you know what you’re doing and find purpose in doing it. A combat soldier experiences extreme ups and downs. Returning home to the “grey” of the civilian world is a shock to a lot of these guys. So, rather than being a kind of trauma it’s often a kind of dullness or purposelessness that gets to a lot of these guys. Jon went on to mention some of the parallels between combat and farming, and some of the techniques used to recondition vets back to the new normal, in a way very similar to how they were conditioned to be warriors. Jon and the farm were saving lives. His story alone was one of hope and persistence in the face of adversity. I was sold on the good the place was doing and decided to explore it further. But I still didn’t see it as making a compelling “cinematic” documentary, in the sense that I understand it, but more like a short information piece to bring awareness to such an important cause.
But that would change. Over time I realized that Comfort Farms is very different. And not just in terms of how it approaches veterans’ issues. After a few trips down there I started to recognize a giant paradox that ran through the whole thing. A kind of literary irony almost. Something about Comfort Farms reminded me in a way of a Flannery O’Conner story. I mean that with respect to the interesting characters, the setting, and a kind of theme that combines blood and hope. (I decided quickly on using tools and techniques to bring this out in the film’s visual style.) There was a kind of poetry to it all, a juxtaposition of issues, that had something to say about life and truth in general. Even the name of the farm is a paradox. One might think a therapy farm named Comfort would suggest comfort as in a place to be comforted. But the Comfort in Comfort Farms comes from Captain Kyle Comfort, a close friend of Jon’s who died in combat. Comfort Farms, contrary to how it sounds, is in fact a place where one is expected to get out of their comfort zone. Growth is in discomfort according to Jon. Although the film deals with serious and important veterans issues like suicide and trauma, Comfort Farms is not just a film about PTSD or veterans, but a film about the human condition. A film about the nature of sacrifice, struggle, love, life, death and triumph. A film that asks what’s reality and what’s appearance. After hearing Jon’s personal story, learning about the veteran suicide rate, and experiencing the interesting irony that is Comfort Farms itself, I was sold on putting the time in. And I’m glad I did.
Carlisle Kellam caught the art bug early, as a musician, a professional mural artist and a professional commercial and portrait photographer. Working as creative director for a small commercial production company, he wrote and directed a number of short narrative commercial pieces for brands like Hormel, McCormick, and Fit to Fight International. After graduating with a Theatre/English double major he went on to earn his masters in philosophy—both of which have had immeasurable influence on his approach to filmmaking. He helped found the Machine Theatre company, staging both avant-garde original and established works. He completed a number of short narrative and documentary films that screened at various festivals around the country. His last film, A Slice of Life: Mr Snulligan, a short documentary about a blind African American chef, took home best short documentary at the Gwinnett center international film fest.