Photo by Mercedes Blackehart

Positive Thinking

A new documentary series by Pasadena-based filmmakers explores ways to find ‘hope, love and beauty’ in tragic situations

By Justin Chapman, 8/4/2016, Pasadena Weekly

The world is awash with tragic stories, some unfolding at this very moment.

Record numbers of migrants are fleeing the war in Syria and other crises. Food shortages have led to riots and unrest in Venezuela. Violent conflict is ravaging South Sudan, Yemen and many other countries. Terrorist attacks are striking every corner of the globe with shocking regularity. Gun violence continues to destroy lives, families and communities across the United States.

In the midst of all this chaos, how are people dealing with these dire circumstances? How do they find hope in life when everything around them seems so hopeless?

The Pasadena-based Hope, Love and Beauty Project is launching a feature-length documentary film series and an online dialogue platform to explore these difficult questions.

“The goal is to produce inspiring films and events that bring hope, healing, dignity and investment to communities in need across the globe,” said Mobolaji Olambiwonnu, the project’s writer, director and producer. “We’re trying to bring another layer to the current conversation to help facilitate that dialogue in a way that’s a bit more constructive for everybody involved.”

The project’s first documentary, “Ferguson Rises,” focuses on the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson, an incident that caused a national outcry and launched a countrywide conversation about race and overuse of force by the police. Tuesday marks the second anniversary of Brown’s death. The film production team is traveling to Ferguson this week to show the film to Brown’s family.

A crowdfunding campaign to raise $133,000 to finish the film, located at, is wrapping up Sunday. Once completed, the film will be submitted to all the major festivals in the coming year.

Olambiwonnu said the conversations in the film were intended to be transformative.

“We weren’t looking for people who overtly exhibited signs of hope, love and beauty, we were just looking for everyday people who we could then begin to ask questions about how they are finding hope, love and beauty,” said Olambiwonnu. “In some cases, the most interesting part was getting asked that question, because some people weren’t sure that they had hope, but when they got asked the question, then they were prompted to begin to think about what might be hopeful in the situation.”

Ferguson residents, he said, were not used to questions that made them consider the positive elements in their situations. They were familiar with questions such as: “What about the riots? What about the looting? Are you scared?”

“The whole idea behind it was creating a counter-narrative where people actually got asked questions that promoted a sense of community and a sense of potential optimism in the midst of what might not be the most optimistic situation,” he said. “The goal was to have people then feel empowered and inspired to go into their daily lives and deal with whatever they’re dealing with, rather than bringing it all the way down, which is sometimes what we as media professionals can be accused of.”

The Hope, Love and Beauty Project is also an online platform featuring a dialogue series with luminaries, such as a recent interview with writer and thought leader Marianne Williamson, as well as short films submitted by documentarians around the world. Those short films will determine where the Hope, Love and Beauty Project will go next and what their next full-length documentary will focus on. Olambiwonnu also wants to turn the hundreds of interviews that did not make it into “Ferguson Rises” into a book in order to tell their stories as well.

“This project is dedicated to creating safe spaces to have really tough dialogues,” said Sherry Simpson Dean, producer of “Ferguson Rises” and adjunct lecturer in the department of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College. “One of the things that we’re seeing among all ages is that it’s harder and harder to have these conversations without a confrontational nature.”

Dean is the former executive director of the Pasadena chapter of the United Nations Association, and produced the award-winning documentary “Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony.” In addition to Dean and Olambiwonnu, Sandra Evers-Manly serves as executive producer, Lisa Smithline serves as impact producer and Tanayi Seabrook and TJ Odebunmi serve as producers.

“It’s a very rare thing for people in these situations to be asked about hope, love and beauty when being interviewed about their community,” she said. “By asking these questions, we wanted to experiment with how to draw forth another conversation. Not implant the conversation, but rather make a discovery. It already exists; there’s hope, love and beauty almost everywhere, but you never hear in the mainstream media about these positive stories.”

The project’s website says “Ferguson Rises” is about “struggle and hope, tragedy and transcendence. It is the story of a small town that suffered a powerful loss and became the flashpoint for a modern-day civil rights movement. It is also filmmaker Olambiwonnu’s story — his journey to find a deeper truth about how this now infamous city looks beyond the media fixation on violence and tragedy, and to seek answers to questions from his own painful past.”

Olambiwonnu was inspired to launch this project after comparing the death of Michael Brown with his own experience as a young person interacting with the police. When Olambiwonnu was 19 he was arrested and framed by white police officers in New Jersey for a rape and robbery he did not commit.

“The police were all over the place in terms of what charges they were trying to get to stick,” said Olambiwonnu. “They brought in some witnesses that I had never met or seen before, so there were some interesting dynamics that were very disturbing to me that had me think twice about how our criminal justice and our police departments work.”

Olambiwonnu said that since his family came from West Africa and Jamaica, he did not grow up with predispositions that many black Americans have about police.

“I always assumed my friends did something wrong if they got in trouble with the police, but when this happened to me, I realized the whole fallacy that maybe there’s a way that you can live your life where you will remain untouched by racism is not the case,” he said. “Luckily my interactions with the police eventually went right, but Mike Brown’s did not.”

Olambiwonnu and Dean said what makes this film unique is that it’s not just an activist film, but also a film that includes conservative members of the community.

“The good news about the Ferguson film is we can begin to see how to respect people with different points of view,” said Dean. “It really is about creating a future for everyone. What we see in ‘Ferguson Rises’ is that everyday people are leaders, and that it doesn’t take an elected official to make your life work. We can actually do some pretty cool stuff even when we’re ripped apart by a tragedy.”

For more information on the Hope, Love and Beauty Project and to watch the “Ferguson Rises” trailer, go to