The Philadelphia Film Festival has begun this week. On Saturday it will screen a movie shot entirely in North Philadelphia, a gritty drama called “Flesh and Blood.”
The writer and director, Mark Webber, stars in his own film, and cast his own family to act as his family — including his mother, a prominent local activist Cheri Honkala.
Webber’s character in the film is a young man freshly-released from prison who and comes home to North Philadelphia. With no home and no job he moves into his mother’s apartment. He has to sleep on the living room floor. He tries, with varying degrees of success, to reconnect with his family, to stay sober, to find a job, and to keep away from crime.
Honkala, a longtime political activist, was once was the Green Party candidate for vice president of the United States in 2012. Earlier this year, she lost a write-in campaign to become a state representative.
“This is North Philly, Kensington. The 197 district — the poorest in the state,” said Honkala in her office on 6th street. She raised Webber here while she was intermittently homeless.
“The cheapest thing to do when you’re poor is to pull out a pad of paper and write,” she said. “In a hotel, or a tent city, from the time Mark was a little boy we wrote scripts. If you don’t have TV or money to buy games, you can write. We’d write all these crazy scripts.”
“Flesh and Blood” is somewhat scripted, and somewhat improvised. It is somewhat fictional and somewhat real. Webber has never been to prison, for example — that part is made up — but he used real relationships with family and friends in the neighborhood to tell the story about surviving on the bottom.
One long sequence in the film is Webber’s character attempting to create a relationship with his estranged father, whom he had not seen in 30 years. To play that part Webber recruited his estranged father, whom he hadn’t seen in 30 years.
Webber made a fiction film as close to documentary as he could. He shot scenes underpinned with emotion derived from real family ties and disappointments to tell a story about people struggling with poverty, addiction, and crime.
While in production, Honkala said her son would not give her the day’s script until the morning of the shoot. As a woman with a certain force of will, revealing the script too far in advance would have led to friction.
“He’s very smart,” she said. “He knows I would have taken the script and re-written it for him.”
An activist to the core, Honkala said there were arguments about what this story is really about.
“My son wanted to remind me that, ‘Mom, this film is about a family, and then politics,’” said Honkala. “I said, ‘Mark, I’m your mom. The personal is political.’”
After the screening this weekend as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival, “Flesh and Blood” will open widely in theaters, in November, when there will also be a free neighborhood screenings in North Philadelphia.