An Orangeburg acupuncturist has turned his filmmaking dreams into a reality with a faith-based short film that explores the complexities that can arise when beliefs and family traditions collide.
Dr. Jose A. Rivera-Garcia has practiced medicine for 22 years, but he has also written short stories and poetry in his first language of Spanish for many years.
His writing his risen to a new level with the creation of his first film titled “Trial,” which he wrote and produced earlier this year.
Rivera-Garcia said he was divinely inspired to write the script in less than a week and hopes the film’s subject matter transcends beyond entertainment and ultimately delivers a message of love and unity.
“I was in the living room in my house and all of a sudden I was going to turn the TV on, and the Lord told me to turn it off. He said, 'Go to the kitchen.' I go to the kitchen and there's a yellow legal pad. All of a sudden. in two hours, the Lord downloaded the script,” he said.
“I mean I couldn't stop writing for two hours. I was just so exhausted. I waited like two days later and then the remaining script was done."
Rivera-Garcia even makes his acting debut in the film, playing a Jewish rabbi whose adopted African-American son, Jeremiah Estavo, is studying Messianic Judaism, totally bucking the family’s traditional belief.
“Race is not an issue in the movie. He's my son. I bring him up as a Jew. One day he's in the kitchen and I catch him reading not the Hebrew Bible, but the Christian Bible. I flip out and say, 'What are you doing? What are you reading? In my house, we don't read this.' My son says, ‘I read what my soul tells me to read,' which is a crucial point,” Rivera-Garcia said.
“I say, 'In my house, we only read Torah,' which is the first five books of the Bible. So the whole movie is a faith movie. Here's a young man finally finding his messiah and he's fighting tradition, and that's the whole premise of the movie," he said.
The son is eventually taken to a rabbinical court to, as Rivera-Garcia put it, “straighten him out from this Jesus thing.” He is questioned on his faith, which he ultimately has to defend.
“It’s a faith film. Only God knows why, but a Jewish family was picked. Here’s a young man who’s brought up as a Jew, but he believes in the Messiah. I wanted to hit that conflict in families. The whole movie shows this inner conflict between father and son," he said.
The father loves his son so much that he feels that he’s losing his son – not the Judaism in him, but his son. That’s why he wants his son to get straightened out by a rabbinical court. So the whole thing is about love between a father and son."
The eight-character cast was directed by Atlanta filmmaker Alan M. Brooks, a 2011 Claflin University graduate who said he was delighted to have been chosen to direct the project.
“I was brought this project a few months ago by Mr. Jose. He told me about what it entailed. I was very intrigued by the content of it. I knew Mr. Jose back when I shot a Chic-Fil-A commercial in Orangeburg, and we had a good relationship after that,” said Brooks, who is also a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Brooks is known for other film projects he has directed, including “Peer Pressure,” “Just in Time,” and 2016’s “Wounded,” which is the story of five brothers who reunite at the funeral of their uncle and reflect on their rough childhood.
“I love the message of this film. It’s a faith-based film and even though I’m Christian, I like the fact that it dealt with faith from the Jewish perspective and the different trials that they go through from the Jewish perspective of believing in Jesus,” he said. “I was actually educated and learned a lot about the different types of Jews.”
The director said he hopes the film will foster unity and focus more on what brings humans together rather than what divides them.
“I think it will. In talking with Mr. Jose, I feel like this film will bring different communities together whether you’re Christian, Jewish, black or white. We have a diverse cast. There are different ethnicities from different communities. I think the film can touch the hearts of many people,” Brooks said. “I think it will do a great thing in the community.”
The eight-member cast includes: Kareem McMichael as Jeremiah; Madeline Smith as an angel; Abigail Espinosa as Sabrina, Jeremiah’s sister; Carlton Dawson as Jeremiah’s best friend Charles; Ray Tittle Sr. as Jeremiah’s grandfather; Roger Albelo as a man who is searching for faith; and Jay Black, who plays a rabbi at the rabbinical court.
The film was produced in Georgia over a period of two days with a $2,100 budget, which Rivera-Garcia said was nothing short of miraculous.
“We had no money,” he said, noting that the film would not have been possible without generous donations from African-Americans from within the local business community.
“We were able to raise $2,100 in one week, which is peanuts when you look at making a film. But the beauty of it was we were able to pay for a hotel and food. I had to pay the camera gentleman and I gave like a love offering to our director. Alan didn’t want any money, but God told me to pay him so I paid him some money. But the actors were all free. I told them from the very beginning that we didn’t have money to pay them, and they were so kind because they all said, 'We want to be in this movie, and it will help our resume,'” Rivera-Garcia said.
He added, “That was a real blessing. They were all believers so we prayed on the set. They’re all up-and-coming actors so it’s hard for them to get work or get into a film. So this experience really was great for them."
The majority of the cast are African-American and Hispanic.
“I’m hoping that this film and the other films that I’ll do will give African-American and Hispanic actors more exposure to help them with their careers,” Rivera-Garcia said.
The film was going to be filmed at Emory University in Atlanta before that plan hit a snag.
“Emory decided that it was too controversial so they pulled the rug on us at the last minute. We were like, ‘Where are we gonna film?’ So a professor who was friends with Alan because he had filmed at Emory at one time said, ‘Film at my house!’" Rivera-Garcia said.
“We filmed everything inside and outside her house. The cinematography was amazing. Then we went to Decatur High School, which actually looks like a courthouse on the outside, where we filmed the closing scenes."
McMichael, who had worked on a few films with Brooks in the past, said he welcomed the opportunity to be a part of the project.
“Two thing inspired me. One, I’ve actually been really wanting to work on a film project in Atlanta. And then when I read the description of the character, it was something different. It was a dramatic role, and I haven’t really played a dramatic role in a while,” he said.
He had an “awesome” time working on set with Rivera-Garcia and his other cast mates, McMichael said.
“He’s very thorough. He knows what he wants and is very clear about what he wanted as far as in the film and in his characters. It wasn’t difficult to deliver my role and was just a really pleasant experience,” he added. “He’s very passionate about the story.”
Dawson said playing Jeremiah’s best friend was a role through which he offered support and encouragement.
“I will be there to remind him that when all else fails, God is with him and on his side. He’s gonna have the final say and see him through no matter what his family or anybody else thinks,” he said.
“And I have to give claps to Alan Brooks and Jose with the casting because they chose people who complemented each other well and had really good on-camera chemistry. So that really translates on screen in a major way, not just with my character, but all of the other characters,” Dawson said.
Espinosa, who hails from Mission, Texas, said she especially enjoyed meeting and working with Rivera-Garcia, who had done missionary work for many years in Mexico with her parents.
“It was really great seeing how he was constantly coming up with new ideas on set … . And seeing how all of the cast gelled, we all really kind of pulled ideas and did things that just enhanced the film,” she said, adding that she hopes viewers will not forget the film's message.
“The message would be just for people to stand up for their faith and just know that if you’re standing on what’s the truth, then everyone else’s opinions are really irrelevant," Espinosa said. "Be bold and don’t be afraid … because you’re not trying to honor people, you’re trying to honor God."
Raquel Lett-Anderson served as set chief, while her 11th-grade son, Christian, served as the film’s boom operator.
“The set chief kind of dips and dabs into everything to keep everybody on schedule. You really assist the director with the whole cast to make sure everything flows,” said Lett-Anderson, noting that it was exciting working on the set whose members morphed into one big family.
“The thing that really was the most touching was understanding what faith is. And in this particular film, faith is greater than tradition. That’s one thing that really stood out the most. And the characters really displayed that and acted their hearts out,” she said. “It was wonderful to see it live and now be able to share it with the world.”
Rivera-Garcia said the film, which is currently being edited, will premiere this month at Claflin University, where Michael Fairwell, an instructor and director of creative services in the university’s Department of Mass Communications, will conduct a viewing and question-and-answer session with his students.
“Then we’ll premiere it in Atlanta,” said Rivera-Garcia. The film will also be premiered at Savannah State University, he said.
While he is not sure exactly how long he will practice medicine, Rivera-Garcia said he is sure about wanting to pursue filmmaking full time. He is already finishing the script for the sequel to “Trial” and has completed the research for a third film.
“I’m very humble, but I didn’t realize that I could write scripts. The sequel will probably film in March or April in Atlanta. That one will be called ‘The Debate.’ Jeremiah is a law student, and I’m a law professor. He has a Neo-Nazi classmate with anti-Semitic feelings who comes after him. They will debate the First Amendment: freedom of speech versus hate speech,” he said.
Rivera-Garcia, whose daughter, Catherine, is studying film at the University of South Carolina, said he would love to see Orangeburg host a yearly film festival for independent filmmakers such as himself.
“I want the while community to come out. This is my vision,” he said. Until then, he said he is focusing on all of his films having a message.
“It’s not about the movie; it’s the message in the movie. I’ve been through a lot in Orangeburg, and there’s such divisiveness with the cultures," Rivera-Garcia said. So if this movie will bridge the cultures together, that’s what I want it to do. I’d be more than pleased because that’s really my goal."