It was after work. He was with some of “the guys” having beers. He looked up to the mountains and saw the smoke, and then, from a TV set in the bar, the nightly news listed evacuation centers in the area. But it never occurred to him that his house was in any danger.
The Painted Cave Fire in June 1990 that burned in the Santa Ynez Mountains and the city of Santa Barbara would eventually and essentially erase his home from existence. It took everything from him, and it led to his spiral into substance abuse.
He said he never had a “normal relationship with alcohol or drugs,” but after the Painted Cave Fire claimed his house, alcohol in particular brought him to his knees. He said he was at a point in his life when he didn’t want to feel anything anymore.
Santa Clarita documentary filmmaker Eric Christiansen said that the trauma he experienced after his house burned to the ground — and overcoming the experience through sobriety — gave him permission to make a documentary like the upcoming “Unmasking Hope.”
He’d win an Emmy for his 1991 film “Faces in the Fire” about the fire that he said wiped the slate clean for him. That would lead to his documentaries “Homecoming: A Vietnam Vets Journey” in 2002 and “Searching for Home: Coming Back from War” in 2015, both about the traumas that people incur when fighting a war and bring home with them.
“The subject was given to me by going through that fire, by getting sober, by going into recovery, by changing my whole life,” Christiansen told The Signal in a telephone interview. “And then God’s like, ‘OK, you’ve got a calling now.’”
“Unmasking Hope,” which will air on public television on Jan. 23, is described on the film’s website as an exploration of the “all too familiar face of trauma, chronicling the extraordinary journeys of a diverse group of survivors as they emerge from behind masks that hide their emotional scars and hinder their healing. From 9/11 and mass shooting survivors, to military combat soldiers and sexual assault victims, the film goes beneath their masks to experience the anguish, social stigma and pain that have scarred their souls.”
Christiansen, who’d recently seen Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film “The Fablemans” before talking with The Signal, said he grew up making Super 8 films like Spielberg’s younger interpretation of himself was shown doing. And while Christiansen said he didn’t have a grand plan for the types of films he wanted to make — the way Spielberg did — he knew he wanted to express himself in one way or another via film as an art form.
Born in 1963 in Long Beach, Christiansen would go on to study the art of motion pictures in the 1980s at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. His friends weren’t all filmmakers, he said, but artists of all types, including dancers, costumers and animators. He absorbed all that they did and all that they talked about, and he tucked it away, to be used again when he least expected it.
Upon graduation, Christiansen said he “flopped around” for about a year in Santa Barbara. Then he found his way into editing video for a small boutique postproduction house in the area. He’d eventually get into directing commercials and music videos. His projects at that time, he admitted, were unlike the films he currently makes.
“It was very flashy and a very different kind of work,” he said. “Then, after the fire — I don’t want to say it was somber, but it was a different kind of work. I found my calling after the fire.”
“Unmasking Hope” came as a natural progression, Christiansen suggested, because his prior films dealt with the traumas people were battling as a result of a fire and war, respectively, which he said seemed very much the same. The new film explores the idea that people deal with any kind of trauma similarly, as Christiansen uncovered when interviewing someone who was sexually abused as a child, and survivors of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the mass shootings at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas in 2017, and the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks in 2018.
“I found out that we all kind of feel the same, no matter our gender, no matter our economic strata, no matter whatever,” he said. “And we all kind of heal the same. All these people kind of told the same story, but it was very different. That was one of my big ‘a-has’ there.”
Christiansen wants his film to be a source of hope. He said that while the work does investigate the traumas that his subjects had to deal with, it also provides coping mechanisms that are supported by leading doctors who work in the field of trauma recovery.
“I’m working with Dr. Amit Etkin, and he’s literally one of the top 100 researchers in the world with trauma and trauma-associated mental health issues like depression, anxiety and things like that,” Christiansen said. “And so, my work is also clinically supported.”
At best, the filmmaker said, “Unmasking Hope” offers the idea that everyone has something they’re dealing with in life and that perhaps we all should practice a little more tolerance.
“Even on this level, where some guy cuts you off on the freeway, and he’s trying to hurry,” he said, “you’re kind of like, ‘You know what, he probably has something going on, too.’ That’s what I want this whole thing to boil down to. There isn’t an easy answer to anything. Everybody has something going on, and we’re all in it together.”
And while “Unmasking Hope” approaches trauma from a clinical standpoint, Christiansen feels his film might also reach people on a more emotional level. Some filmmakers believe that the combination of images, colors, words, sounds and music create abstractions in the minds of the viewers, perhaps causing them to intuitively try to make sense of what they don’t understand. Such an experience can lead to powerful results for a person. Christiansen doesn’t seem to take that for granted.
“At CalArts, I was exposed to all the disciplines from graphic design to fine art, and conceptual art to performance art,” the filmmaker said. “And so, I try to use all of that, especially in this film. I felt very free to kind of express myself that way with this film. And I feel this film is more successful in communicating the emotions and the journey of the trauma survivors.”
“Unmasking Hope” takes survivors’ stories, shared through deeply personal interviews — some of which people were sharing for the first time with another person — and it weaves them together with interpretive dance and lyrical animation.
“The aggregate stories of these brave individuals demonstrate the resiliency of the human spirit and promotes tolerance and empathy for those who have been stigmatized by unthinkable traumatic events,” read a description of the film from the film’s website. “Ultimately, ‘Unmasking Hope’ shares a powerful message of hope that can inspire us all to unmask our own hope.”
And while Christiansen made this film as a way to help and even inspire others, it’s in that very act of providing for others that he has actually aided in his own healing.
“Being of service to others really does keep me sober,” he said. “If I can give hope to others — and that’s my point of service, and I really believe God has me on this calling for that reason, and it’s not a direct replacement for the alcohol, but it’s a way to keep me away from alcohol … But I have to be of useful service to my community. And I hope I am by doing this.”
For more information about “Unmasking Hope” or to see a trailer, go to UnmaskingHopeTheMovie.com.