In 2007 John Kapellas, a gay man who lives in San Francisco, was forced to permanently retreat to his apartment after his body began to develop painful rashes whenever he was exposed to natural or artificial light. Kapellas now spends all of his time indoors with a flashlight as his only source of light. It is in this strange dark world that he has built a whole new life for himself.
Kapellas is the subject of "How To Make a Pearl," Jason Hanasik's short documentary. It's a fascinating portrait of a strong, brave man who accepts his fate and makes the best of a situation most people would find unbearable. He spends a lot of his time drawing, creating beautiful images on the walls of his home. A former boyfriend stops by to bring him groceries. He watches TV and shares stories from his past: his childhood, his coming out story, and the losses of his friends during the peak years of the AIDS crisis. These stories are illustrated with videos from Kapellas' archive of home movies.
Filmmaker Hanasik spoke to SFGN about why he chose to bring Kapellas' story to the screen.
"I was drawn to John Kapellas because I thought his life experiences and the way he had navigated the past and was finding his way through the present was a special kind of medicine," he said. "A medicine that might be useful for both trauma survivors and those navigating their own versions of an endless night. I also immediately saw him as a really intriguing Queer character. Not only is John gay but the life he's being forced to lead is far from normal--he's doing it with a special shade of grace, generosity and creativity."
Hanasik recalled how Kapellas came into his life. "John is a friend of my best friend," he said. "While I've known my best friend for quite some time, I did not meet John until 2015. When I first met him and entered his space I didn't immediately think I'm going to make a film with him. There were, of course, the technical hurdles of filming in almost complete darkness but also, at the time, I didn't know his back story, and while a person living in the dark is curious, it in of itself is not enough of a reason for me to make a film."
The more he learned about Kapellas, the more fascinated Hanasik became. "In 2016, after visiting John a few times, I learned more about his back story and realized that I could not only overcome the technical hurdles but, more importantly, I discovered a person whose story intersected with some of the questions we're asking about trauma, abuse, and thriving beyond survival," he said.
Hanasik soon came to admire his subject. "John is probably one of the most curious and loving men I've ever met," he said. "So when I asked him if I could make a film about him he immediately said yes and was excited to go on the adventure."
He explains why most of the film focuses on Kapellas' backstory. "I made a conscious decision not to make a medical documentary," Hanasik said. "I think we have more to learn from him as a person than a diagnosis or medical condition." He noted that there aren't any answers as to whether or not Kapellas might be able to one day emerge from the dark.
Hanasik explained what he was trying to convey when he made "How To Make a Pearl." "For the past ten years I've lost a major member of my blood or chosen family," he said. "I saw that he, like me, was walking among the living while also spending a fair amount of time with the dead. When I went looking for films which helped me understand how to spend more time with the living and in the present, and what to do with the pain and trauma that had intersected with my life, I didn't immediately locate them. Instead I found movies which focused more on the road to a traumatic experience and not necessarily myths of how to navigate a life living with it."
And then he met Kapellas. "As I got to know John I could see that he had found, or was forced to find, his concept of pearling. I thought this was the story I want to shepherd into culture. Although, to focus on only that concept or aspect of the film would be reductive. I think each section of John's life discussed in the film and how John and his circle have navigated it has little pearls of wisdom that will and has resonated with different sections of the audiences who have seen it."
Jason Hanasik's "How To Make A Pearl" is now available for free online viewing: TheGuardian.com/artanddesign/ng-interactive/2018/mar/02/how-to-make-a-pearl-the-san-francisco-man-who-lives-in-darkness