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Jake Mahaffy, WELLNESS, the South by Southwest Film Festival, and the Best Narrative Feature Jury Award

Earlier today, I received a phone message from my friend and former Hollins colleague Jake Mahaffy - about another subject altogether, a project on which we’re working together - in which he mentioned in passing that his new film, Wellness, had won a prize at Austin’s South By Southwest film festival.

He hadn’t been there for the ceremony, he said, because he wanted to get home and so had left the festival early. That’s classic Jake - he wants to make the work and (many people claim this but in his case it is utterly true) couldn’t care less about the acclaim, unless it somehow helps him to make better films.

When I looked up what prize it was that he had won, exactly, it turned out not to be a small one: it was, in fact, the Best Narrative Feature Jury Award. Here’s a newspaper article that will tell you a little more about it.

SXSW is an extremely important film festival. I won’t say that it’s more important than Sundance, but... Well, some people might, and I wouldn’t argue with them.

This on the heels of the film’s having received this rave review in Variety. These are the sorts of accolades that many people in the film business would - quite literally - kill for. They make Jake uncomfortable, but they do open doors.

Wellness is more than good. It’s indescribably wonderful and awful. When I visited Jake at Wheaton College back in October, when I was crowned King of Providence, RI (in itself a moving event),

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I saw a rough cut of the film. I was alone in the room. In the middle, I was so stunned, and so uncomfortable, that I stopped the film and took a bathroom break.

When I came back to the viewing room, I found that the door had shut and locked behind me, and I couldn’t get back in. I was surprised to realize that I was actually grateful for the break. Those who know me will attest, I think, that I am no shrinking violet - but the intensity of the film was almost too much for me. It took me about ten minutes to find a way back into the screening room, which was enough time for me to get my nerve back up and start the film again.

It’s simultaneously one of the quietest and most normal films ever made, and one of the most frightening. The loneliness of it, and the love we come to feel for the main character: they are not the ersatz emotions we get in most films, most books - hell, in most of life itself. They are the real thing, and that’s tough to take, and infinitely rewarding.

It’s like a non-histrionic Death of a Salesman written by the actual son of the actual salesman. And that description doesn’t do it justice, not by half. That people are responding strongly and positively to such difficult material makes me feel better about human beings generally.

If you want to know more about Jake and his work, you can look for him at Handcranked Film, a collective within which he produces a good bit of his work.

The project we’re now involved in - all I can say is that I’m working to tweak one of his scripts under a grant from Sundance, and it feels like an incredibly dicey job: I feel like a man with a sledgehammer sent out to work on a very fine watch. I pray every time I start to type that I don’t simply shatter something that’s already very fine. It’s daunting work, but a privilege to get to collaborate with somebody who is working the kind of high-wire that Jake is working.

He’s a brilliant artist and - that rarest of things - a good and humble man. And one day before too long, much to his shock and chagrin, he’s also going to be a (justly) famous filmmaker. If Wellness comes around where you are, now or in the future, you must see it.