Forgiving yourself and rebuilding the world that broke you, in Mark Webber's “Flesh and Blood”

Growing up homeless and addicted with his single mom, who was Jill Stein's 2012 running mate, was gift, says Webber

Published November 9, 2017 6:59PM (EST)

"Flesh and Blood" (Monument Releasing)
"Flesh and Blood" (Monument Releasing)

Mark Webber has been acting in films for nearly 20 years, often appearing in cult movies ranging from "Shrink" and “Broken Flowers” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” to “Green Room.” On screen, he projects both grittiness and edginess — qualities that likely stem from his tough upbringing. Webber, along with his single mother, Cheri Honkala, struggled with homelessness during his formative years.

Honkala is also someone of note. She works tirelessly as an anti-poverty activist in Philadelphia and was the Vice Presidential nominee for the Green Party in 2012. She is now running for Representative in the Pennsylvania State House.

In the superb new film, “Flesh and Blood,” which Webber wrote and directed, mother and son play themselves. There are a few fictional elements thrown in — such as Mark’s “character” being released from prison as the film opens. Mark returns home and reconnects with his real-life brother Guillermo Santos (playing himself), a nerdy, bullied teenager who has been recently diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. Mark readjusts to life on the outside and grapples with his feelings of remorse about a failed relationship. Meanwhile, Guillermo, who is interested in filmmaking, starts documenting his mother talking about her life and the cycles of abuse and addiction.

“Flesh and Blood” is captivating because Webber immerses viewers in the characters’ difficult lives. Honkala talks candidly about the mistakes she has made and being a teen mom. Guillermo has a very powerful heart-to-heart with his ill father. Webber too, connects with his own estranged real-life dad in a critical scene.

Honkala and Webber met with Salon at the recent Philadelphia Film Festival to discuss their relationship and their experiences making their affecting film, “Flesh and Blood.”

What was the motivation to make this film, a fictionalized documentary of your family’s lives, struggles and relationships?

Mark: After “Explicit Ills” [Webber’s 2008 directorial debut], I made “The End of Love” [2012] with my son Isaac, when he was two. And that’s where I like to say I found my voice as a filmmaker. I realized I was carving out the space in the indie film world for myself. I defined it as “reality cinema,” which is using real-life relationships and building traditional narrative around it. I knew that for “Flesh and Blood,” I wanted to make a movie about family. That coincided with a point in my life where I was doing a lot of work on myself with healing and being in a place of forgiveness. Thankfully, I’ve had a colorful upbringing and amazing family that was willing to participate in this piece of art. Because everyone is bringing themselves to their roles, it has a disarming effect.

How much of the film was improvised?

Mark: I call it a 50/50 split because even within scenes where dialogue is improvised, there is dialogue that is written. There are also moments that play out as extended vérité, like Guillermo with his father. I have been compelled to put out independent films that are unique. I love films that push the boundaries and confines of normal filmmaking techniques.

You often place the camera in ways that have viewers eavesdropping or observing the characters expressing themselves in a way that is honest, and real and unfiltered. Can you describe your approach to the material?

Mark: I have an obsession with realism, and real vulnerability and real emotion. I’ve always been looking at how I can bring that to my work as an actor in traditional films. In my own movies that I make, I really lean into that. There is no normal manipulation of music indicating how you are supposed to feel. It’s about being present. Mark is a changed person, and he is trying to be present and listen. That’s a device in the film, to observe and listen and see what’s going on; being inspired by what is going on with my mom and my brother. The movie is very much about forgiveness and in order to forgive yourself and to love yourself, you need to listen. We really tried to sit in real uncomfortable moments.

You based much of the “drama” on real life, but Mark’s character gets out of prison, which is a fictional construction. Can you talk about that decision, and how it informed the film?

Mark: I’ve been locked up a few times at demonstrations for civil disobedience, but the prison worked metaphorically in the film with how we imprison ourselves with pain and trauma in our own minds — how that can be a prison. There’s also the reality of the majority of people in that community where I grew up — and where my mom and my brother still live — there are people in prison every day. My friend Charles in the movie was unjustly imprisoned for seven years. It’s that harsh messed-up reality of young Black and Latino men in the neighborhood who are being thrown away. [Prison] wasn’t my actual reality, but it is the reality of so many individuals.

Cheri, you were a teen mom who escaped abuse and exited homelessness. I’m impressed by your survival skills. Can you discuss your strength and how you prevailed in hard times?

Cheri: My son Mark does a really good job with showing the humanity. The film was very hard for me. If I were to write a movie about me, this would not be it. It would be a whole different movie! But I think he does a good job not glamorizing any of this. He can go into the art aspect of it, but I think he is as good as he is because of the life that he led. He knows what it means to steal my change and count it. He knows what it was to struggle. I learned that there were two choices. One was figuring out how to survive.  

I had an older brother named Mark who was a filmmaker who killed himself. And I had a younger sister who is an addict who has never chosen recovery. She was a hardcore addict, and I had to grieve that relationship decades ago. I knew I had to deal with the reality around me, and going insane, losing my mind or sedating myself were not an option because I saw what happens when people do that. And I learned that being mentally healthy is a lot of work. Even when I didn’t know what I was doing — I was 15 years old! — but mental health and teaching my kids to love themselves was important.

Where do I get that strength? I read. Everything I know I steal from somebody in history. I relate to slave narratives. I love Harriet Tubman. I love the film “12 Years a Slave,” because people outside the world that I live in can afford to have all these moral judgments about why I decided to do different things. But I think when somebody is in that situation there are only certain choices you can make.

I also want to probe into your VP run with Jill Stein and the Green Party in 2012. Can you talk about that experience?

Cheri: Even though people think I have a very loud mouth and am very opinionated and our house is very much a matriarchal household, I have such a sense of service and responsibility. I joke that my mom named me Cheri, because she wants me to share. I had a really difficult time with material things when other people don’t have things. Living where I live, it made sense when I was asked to run for Vice President, because people made me the leader that I am right now — whether I like it or not. In hindsight, I wish I would have been a librarian. I didn’t realize how heavy the crown is, but I felt I had a responsibility to take that big mic that I had and to talk about all the social issues. I clearly believe that we need to have more choices in the country than Pepsi and Coke. That’s how I view the Democratic and Republican Party. All around the world there are 10, 15 different political parties. We have a responsibility to the generation to come that we have more choices than Pepsi and Coke.

Can you explain how you continue your anti-poverty activism to create awareness and help foment change?

Cheri: It’s much harder now that people know who I am, and it’s further magnified by Mark being a celebrity. The bigger the light, the more people, the bigger the problems that have to be resolved. The more money you need, and there’s never enough. It keeps bringing me back to taking political positions on things. Whether I like it or not, I take whatever money I can from Mark or Teresa [Palmer, Mark’s wife] or having Guillermo share his room, or me going without paying necessary bills, or taking food out of our cupboard to feed other people — it’s never going to be enough.

Mark gives a drunken speech where he says, “Shit happens to you,” and suggests that life is one let down after another. He says we must control how we react. This seems like a good mantra for the age of Trump. What are your thoughts on how to react when shit happens?

Mark: There’s a meditative throughline in the film, which is at its core, a central theme of mindfulness and being aware and being present. Sometimes the best thing to do is be there and be in the moment; not be so reactionary. Take a beat and pause. We live in our heads a lot and the stories we tell ourselves run rampant. In my drunken stupor, there is a central nugget of being mindful. It comes out in a pessimistic, negative way, but I’m trying to import real wisdom there.

Let me ask you a question Guillermo asks his father in the film: What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?

Mark: I think that picking up drugs, pills, for me — the pain and the added level of messiness I had to go through because of that was really shitty. I grew up with this narrative in my head that I’m never going to be like my dad. So the fact that I wound up with a pretty hardcore drug habit was a big bummer. But then, it’s also one of the greatest things that ever happened to me. That’s the story of my life, right? Being homeless [when I was 10] and going through all the shit with my mom really sucked, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but because I did go through that, I gained a lot of beautiful perspectives on the world that have served me as an adult. I’m fortunate that I have a lot of incredible people around me and that I got the support to tackle my issues with addiction head on, and in turn, made a film about it.

Cheri: The worst thing I ever did was have such a low self-esteem as a young girl and really not love myself enough. Part of it was that I didn’t have any other choices, but if I had learned to love myself as a young, teenage mom, I would have prevented myself from getting in a lot of different relationships that were hurtful. Women’s experience in poverty is different. I used my sexuality for years to figure out how to eat and feed my kids, and that does something to a person’s soul.

At one point in my life, I had to make a decision. Mark calls it mindfulness. I call it “healing through struggle,” is that you have to repair the world that made you sick. I think you have to be careful not just to repair yourself, because at the end of the day, all we have is each other, and that’s the only way we can change things socially and for ourselves, too.

Mark reconnects with his father after many years in a fascinating scene. Mark, how did that episode come about? Cheri, you were married to Mark’s father. What would you say to him now if you’d met?

Cheri: I didn’t recognize him. I had no idea who he was. He looked so fundamentally different. He was 15 years older than me [when I had Mark]. That was one of those things you’re not supposed to do.

Mark: I didn’t have any relationship with my father. What you see in the movie is me seeing my dad for the second time in my entire life since I was five years old. We shot it in one take. It was all very real. I did it selfishly for my own well-being. It started there first. The gift of forgiveness: it was to provide my dad some relief for the pain and shame and guilt he had been harboring. I owed it to myself, first and foremost. I’m happy that what happened because of me wanting to look after myself, he doesn’t have to suffer as much. I became a father, and I realize people make mistakes. My dad made a choice, clearly, to do what he thought was best. I know how guilt and shame works: they can keep you really shackled. I can empathize with that. You need to be a catalyst to take some action, especially to forgive yourself and forgive whomever you are harboring ill will for.

The film’s tag line is “We Build the House We Live in.” How would you describe the house you build and live in?

Mark: I’ve had an interesting journey becoming a man, a father, in recovery, and growing up with a radical mom who takes action against things that are unjust. I can go really big picture about stuff and zoom in really close. On a human level, no matter what situation you are in, you do have power, as I say in the movie. You can deal with how you process things and the choices you make and the way in which you react. The world is suffering, and it starts with you and how you relate to that suffering and the choices that you make and how you react. Leading a life of service that my mom has led her entire life, I learned that I needed to be of service to myself too in order to effectively help others.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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