Director Tom E. Brown on Finding Success Through a Comedy About AIDS
Surrender As The Path of Most Allowing
“At the beginning of my career I was more concerned with having a big career in film but after spending some time in Hollywood I became disheartened by how it worked. I have focused more on family and friends and on getting more big hearted projects out to make the world a better place. My focus is on what makes me happy and healthy.”
It seems simple to say but almost impossible to do in a world driven by speed, career ladders and fame. But Tom E. Brown, writer and director of the independent film Pushing Dead, isn’t a jaded anti-Hollywood director. He is someone that has mastered what is a challenge for many — facing fear and surrendering.
Surrender as the Inevitable Success of an Unknown Future
Seminal research by Mary Moze on the understanding of surrender in, “Surrender: An Alchemical Act in Personal Transformation,” identifies three uses of surrender: the political/ military, psychological, and spiritual. The political and military focus on surrender as a form of giving up.
The spiritual and psychological focus on surrender as a valuable experience to personal development due to a major life change. Moze points out that external or self imposed change can lead to greater personal understanding. She sees “surrender as a tool of choice in optimizing our potential.”
It is this type of surrender that I focus on. The act of choosing to not give up but to have the courage to allow something different to happen when faced with what can seem like an insurmountable challenge. It is the belief in the inevitable success of an unknown future. An acceptance of transformation.
Making Peace With AIDS
Tom was diagnosed HIV+ in 1985. The Foundation for Aids Research amFAR reports 1985 as the year that the Hollywood star Rock Hudson died of AIDS; Ryan White a 13 year old boy hemophiliac tests positive; AIDS is reported in 51 countries; 15,527 cases of AIDS were reported; and 12,529 reported deaths. A positive diagnosis at that time was seen as a blank check of death.
For two years Tom focused on his mortality. Time was not on his side or so he thought. He made peace with his diagnosis and opened the door to a world surrounded by friends, family, a special god-son, and his life’s work in film. He chose to release the fear of dying and engage with living in a whole new way.
Thirty-one years after his diagnosis, Tom has a long list of short films, various film festival awards, and a sense of humor about his life that led to his first feature film Pushing Dead. The first AIDS comedy to come out of the Sundance Director and Writer Lab programs in 2000.
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Pushing Dead debuted at Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Festival, this past June and was awarded the AT&T Best Feature, Audience Award. It also won a Discovery Award at the Calgary International Film Festival; Best Director at the Orlando Film Festival; an Audience Award at the Seattle Gay & Lesbian Film Festival; and a special citation nomination from the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.
What is so funny about AIDS?
Well, Tom sees it from his point of view not ours, “I’ve been living with HIV for thirty one years. My world is goofy.” It is this dark goofiness that he explores in some of his short films through comedy.
In this approach to living Tom has science on his side. The first written study of the effects of laughter on people with chronic illness was in 1976, in the article, “Anatomy of an Illness” published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The article reported the recovery and long life of Norman Cousins, a professor of Medical Humanities at the School of Medicine, University of California at Los Angeles. Cousins researched the biochemistry of human emotions and was diagnosed with Ankylosing Spondylitis, a rare disease of the connective tissues. He watched comedy films as one of many alternative therapies to aid in his cure.
In 2003, the Journal of Alternative Health Medicine published the article, “The Effect of Mirthful Laughter on Stress and Natural Killer Cell Activity,” where it was concluded that laughter may reduce stress and improve immune function. High immune function is linked to increase disease resistance and decreased morbidity in persons with cancer and HIV disease, “laughter may be a useful cognitive-behavioral intervention.”
Since Anatomy of an Illness there has been more research on the effects of laughter on the body and in specific health fields like hospice care, psychology, geriatric, and oncology among others as reported in the clinical review article, “Laughter Prescription” by William B. Strean, PhD from the University of Alberta in 2009. And while more in-depth clinical trials need to be conducted, for those still skeptical of the power of laughter, the current research does support this — “laughter and humor are therapeutic allies in healing,” says Strean.
Keeping Our Brains Happy
When Tom is writing, filming, and editing he is creating from a point of view of coping. He wants us to see life beyond a perceived problem. Stubborn as human beings are we work better when we can gain that knowledge ourselves instead of being told. So, he carves out a story from his truth; brings together a cast of people to weave the journey and cuts and pastes together the weird, funny, awkward, silly, sad, scary, and odd moments that make up our sometimes ridiculous every day.
Tom dares us to laugh at the idea that time is not ours to control but ours to enjoy, to live, to make better, and like Dan, the protagonist in Pushing Dead says, “take down with me.” We may not have control over a lot but we do have control over how we experience our life, how we empathize, what we are thankful for, and who we choose to share the journey with. Essentially, what keeps our brain happy when we choose gratitude over despair.
The Path of Most Allowing
After filming editing begins. It is a stressful process of setting in stone his vision. Editing is a continual practice of letting go of the fear that you won’t be able to go back and change something. It requires allowing all the pieces to become a greater whole. “Editing is actually my favorite part even though it is so stressful. It is where I shape the story,” says Tom.
“A fun fact is that I always get my blood work done after I’m done with a film. Despite being exhausted and the stress, my T-cell count is always up and viral load undetectable.”
Of course, sharing the goofiness of his life on film is one of many therapies he manages, being with his family and friends the most important one. But it is the continual practice of surrendering to life; opening the door to joy in unexpected places; being open and kind; and producing more big hearted projects to make the world better, that have placed him on the path of most allowing.
“Making movies is part of my medicine,” Tom E. Brown.