By JULI GOETZ MORSER
When island writer Stephen Silha first met poet, filmmaker and spiritual visionary James Broughton, little did he know how that chance encounter would change his life. Fourteen years later, Silha’s directorial debut “Big Joy,” a documentary chronicling the life of Broughton, will be shown at the Vashon Theatre on Jan. 3 as the first film of the year for the Vashon Film Society’s monthly Art Film Series.
On an island where bumper stickers read “Keep Vashon Weird,” it’s hard to imagine a better place to debut a documentary about the man who coined the phrase “Follow your weird.” It makes even better sense knowing the original definition of the word “weird.” “It’s Celtic and means being true to your core, being on your creative edge,” explained Silha.
Silha admits he knew next to nothing about Broughton at the time of their meeting, but describes that encounter in 1989 “like a door opening in my soul.” Silha felt passionate to learn more about this older artist, whom he called the liveliest 75-year-old he had ever met. To Silha’s good fortune, the two became fast friends, but it wasn’t until after Broughton’s death in 1999 that Silha discovered the degree to which Broughton stayed true to his own weird, leading an unconventional life in his quest for creative artistry, sexual and spiritual love and an evolved state of happiness.
In the process, Broughton wrote 23 books, produced 23 films, escaped to Europe during the McCarthy years, influenced American literature, film and the history of social movements and became the revered bard of sexual liberation.
“His poetry and personality helped create (the San Francisco Renaissance), a vibrant post-war artistic climate after World War II in San Francisco, the soil out of which the Beat movement grew,” Silha said.
During one of the 37 interviews Silha conducted for the documentary, beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti confessed he felt like an interloper in the early 1950s, building his career on Broughton’s. Other big names of that era and beyond — Anna Halprin, Gus Van Sant, even George Lucas — admitted their artistic debt to Broughton, in addition to his cadre of students from the San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco State.
“His sensual poetry and films of the ‘70s and ‘80s broke taboos and gave voice to a spiritualized sexuality that is continuing to emerge culturally today,” Silha said. “He foreshadowed today’s multimedia culture.”
Silha imagined writing a book about Broughton’s larger-than-life story, but changed his mind after burrowing through the stunning images and words of Broughton’s archived work at Kent State University. To best tell this vibrant story, Silha realized the project needed to be a film.
As a journalist, Silha intimately understood the art of storytelling, but wanted to go beyond the facts to something more poetic and luminous.
“My work with Eric Slade (the film’s co-director and producer) and the rest of our team — animator, editors, co-producers, consultants — made it possible for me to use James Broughton’s story and art to make a film that offers an inspirational prayer for heightened creativity,” he said.
“Big Joy” is also making a big name for itself in the independent film world, including winning the Reel NW Award at the Seattle International Film Festival and garnering acclaim at more than 30 other international film festivals.
Co-director Eric Slade believes Broughton’s story is empowering, that Broughton’s commitment to truth in his art, despite the great odds he faced, inspires audiences to make the same commitment.
“This film is as much for artists in the traditional sense as it is for all of us, as every activity that we engage in has the potential to be creative,” Slade said.
He said Broughton encouraged others to follow their own weird, to find what we’re passionate about and embrace it fully.
“I hope audiences experience James’ message of ‘following your weird’ in a visceral way — that it is possible, at any moment, to choose the path of joy,” he said.
“Big Joy: the Adventures of James Broughton” will be shown at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 3, at the Vashon Theatre. The evening will include some special creative performances.