Directing Change: Interview with Malachi Leopold

Each Wednesday, we post an interview with someone who is living, exploring, or championing aspects of thrivability – people at the forefront of cultural, organizational, or individual change.

Malachi Leopold is an award winning film director who runs the full service production company Left Brain/Right Brain Productions.  His 2009 short documentary, 22 Years From Home, followed the return home of Kuek Garang, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

Seeking to have his company embody his personal values, Malachi has been proactive in communicating the company’s mission to enact positive social change.  By inspiring others to overcome adversity, combating poverty, advancing education, and taking care of our planet, we can make a living and make the world a better place at the same time.

Disclosure:  Left Brain/Right Brain Productions is a client of Thrivable, Inc.

Todd Hoskins: With the diminishing returns of “messaging” and the return to more authentic “storytelling,” where does film fit in?

Malachi Leopold: Well, I think that it’s a really cool way that humans continue telling stories from generation to generation.  But in essence, they still function as part of a society’s or culture’s way of communicating a vision, passing on values, relating humor, rallying people to a cause.

It’s an interesting question because, in my opinion, there are a lot of films that are very much geared towards a “messaging-oriented” audience.  A 90-minute feature film that is created for an audience with a [perceived] attention span of 30-seconds.  I think that approach often leads to films (actions and comedies, especially) which feel much more about special effects, gimmicks, and so forth rather than substance – less about the craft of storytelling and more about 90 minutes of eye candy.

There are films that have a bit of a “guy talk” (“American Pie”) or “girl talk” (“Sex and the City”) vibe, others that have a more serious, parable kind of tone (“Michael Clayton”, “Children of Men”);  others that simply spark the imagination (“E.T.”, “Inception”), others that document history (“Saving Private Ryan”) or collective history (“Social Network”).

I think that we can see trends that point to greater appreciation and usage of telling great stories.  From traditional :30 TV advertising to the increased popularity of documentary films, I think there’s an awareness that telling a great story that inspires people is a great way to connect them to your cause, your brand, your product or service.

Todd:  How do you balance or shift from working commercially to working for a cause in which you believe?

Malachi:  I want every day to be spent driving our mission of creating positive social change.  For me, it’s not about “giving back.”  I don’t want to spend my time working and then “give back” what I have left over in terms of time or money.  So we proactively seek out relationships that allow us to support the missions of others, and through those relationships we leverage our impact.

For example, I could volunteer once a month with an organization and it could make a difference for perhaps one person or perhaps a handful of people.  Important?  Absolutely.  Meaningful?  Without a doubt.  But what if I spent my time collaborating with an organization that takes the work of the volunteer organization further?  What if I create an actual change, a shift, that is sustainable, big?  It’s now a true, sustainable change.  And I believe that, for myself, to create sustainable change, it has to be my day to day – it has to be my life’s work.

And there is another dimension to it.  If we’re doing a TV ad for a fast food company, someone might say, “How is that promoting a cause, creating change, etc.?”  It’s a good question.  Here’s my answer to that – I believe in active engagement.  If I won’t do business with someone, I’ve effectively put a stop to a possible dialogue, a possible conversation about sustainability and food systems, nutrition and so forth.

But if I am open to doing business with them, I have the chance to build a relationship and potentially have a strong influence on a company that has enormous reach, and enormous consequences connected to the decisions of their day to day operations.

Todd:  So, your mission remains the same regardless of who is financing the project?

Malachi:  Yes, we don’t really separate working commercially and working for a “cause.”  To me, it’s not so much about “cause” as it is “this is just what I do.”  My day to day is about driving mission.  Creating change.  If it’s a TV ad about carpet or a documentary about sexual violence in the Congo, I’m actively finding ways to make the world a better place.

Todd:  You have been working on projects in the Middle East and Africa.  In a war-torn or impoverished region, is there thrivability?

Malachi:  There is evidence of a unique development of a civilization in the Niger delta where, for about 1600 or so years, a complex society of specialists collaborated for mutual benefit in relative peace and prosperity.  I say it’s unique because the traditional way I think we in the West have thought of the development of civilizations and urban centers has been more about exploration and conquest, conquering, victors and spoils, a concentrated few ruling over many.  However, this was an example a “thriving” society that occasionally had evidence of clashes, but not the type that we think of today as “ethnic rivalries” or “inter tribal warfare.”  In fact, there seems to be a lot of evidence of there being an emphasis placed on the importance of differentiating oneself and one’s culture through pottery, music, food and food production, dance, weapons, tools, physical marks, clothing, while at the same time celebrating and appreciating the diversity and benefits of other cultures and societies and ways of life.

The only way I could see “thrivability” in action in some of the places I have been would be more in terms of being at peace with one’s circumstances, finding peace within the midst of an impoverished situation.  However, I think it’s too easy to sort of romanticize a “pastoral” way of life, a “simpler” way of life.  Living off the land, producing only what one needs, “in harmony” with the environment.  The reality is, that life is extremely difficult.  Every day a struggle.  It’s survival, and difficult for me to think of as “thrivability.”

In the post-conflict and impoverished regions of the world, I think it’s usually about survival.  I look at thrivability as holding a vision of what is next, another branch of our evolution.  But I think the reality on the ground is that, with billions living in conditions of poverty, war or post-war or could-be-war-at-any-time, disease, lack of economic opportunities or means – sustainability doesn’t even enter the picture, much less thrivability.

For example, one of the things I noticed in Sudan was a large amount of trash just blowing around some of the villages we visited.  For me, coming from an environmentally conscious city and way of life, an impulse happened – I judged. I thought “Oh, this is terrible – littering, polluting the environment.” I start picturing birds tangled in junk, animals rummaging through garbage in search of food.  Humans encroaching on the environment around them.

But it’s just an entirely different type of situation.  How can someone worry about recycling a bag when they’re not sure if the one meal they need to have that day is even going to happen?  Or wondering if a violent clash is going to break out?  I’m not saying let’s trash everything, but I do think it’s difficult to address issues such as that when someone has hunger pangs.  Or when someone has been a victim of violence, or lives with a daily fear of being bombed.

Todd:  Kuek, featured in 22 Years from Home, is a resilient man.  What qualities have made him thrive?

Malachi:  I think the quality that allowed him and the rest of the Lost Boys of Sudan to survive was a strong sense of family and community.  Coupled with a will to live, to overcome the adversity, and then to come back and make things better.  A generosity of spirit.

Todd:  So, what would be your dream project?  What would you love to film?

Malachi:  If I could be sitting in a theatre next to Terrence Malick, and at the end of my film he turns to me, nods his head, and with a smile says, “That was pretty good.”  Whatever that film is, that’s my dream project.

Todd:  Thanks, Malachi.  I look forward to viewing more of your storytelling.

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