By Gary Murray
“The wolf in sheep’s clothing, really the wolf in God’s clothing is the tag,” is what director Ya’Ke Smith said of the title of his film Wolf. Some films are just for entertainment, a diversion to fill a few hours. Then there are films such as Wolf. It is the story of a family that is shaken to the core when they discover that their son is the victim of sexual abuse by the leader of their church. It is a story of mental collapse and betrayal. Wolf is not a film for the faint of heart but it is a film with passion and heart.
Wolf plays as part of the Dallas International Film Festival and is the feature film directorial debut of Ya’Ke Smith. He is a much lauded filmmaker of shorter works, a man with a case full of awards and accolades. Along for the discussion were actress Mikala Gibson, Ya’Ke’s lovely wife, who played Nona and young actor Jordan Cooper who played Carl the victim.
Several things drove Ya’Ke to make the film. He grew up in the church and “I was exposed to the good and the bad side of it. I know a lot of people who have been molested, not just by clergymen but in general. Hearing those stories as a teenager, they sort of lived in me. I didn’t know I would make a film about them. I didn’t know what I would do with them. I just knew they were there.”
Watching the documentary Deliver us from Evil spurned on the idea of making the film. “For me it was the first time I saw a pedophile, they didn’t excuse him but he was humanized.” Ya’Ke Smith wanted to tell a story not only of an issue but of family, a story that touched a universal chord.
Using San Antonio as his base, he completed the film on the fifteen day shooting schedule. He used the same stable of actors which included his wife Mikala but still needed a young man for the lead role of Carl. “I do not like auditions,” he said of the process of finding Jordan, “(but) I knew immediately he was Carl. When he walked into the room, he understood the script much better than a lot of other people. There was a maturity there, an understanding of the material. It was baffling to me how he got it.”
Young Jordan Cooper seemed in awe of the process of the press conference. This novice actor did his due diligence before he went in front of the cameras. He admitted that he watched an Oprah Special about abuse where they interviewed victims. He said, “I sat there and I watched that special over and over again. I looked into their eyes and there was so much pain and guilt. They forgave but they didn’t forget and some didn’t forgive. They went on and life went on but they still had that pain, that little box that was filled inside of them. I felt that my mission was to convey that message and show that in my eyes. Tell that story without basically having any words. It was a duty for me to tell their story.”
On his method of finding Carl, Jordan said, “I believe in becoming the character, I don’t believe in drawing from my own personal experience. I feel that I’m cheating the audience if I don’t fully become that character. It is dangerous sometimes and thankfully it is a character I could come back from.”
Mikala is a seasoned actress who has been on the theater boards for years. She was very impressed by how strong Jordan was as an actor and noted that the young man shows much promise. She finds the live stage a much more fulfilling experience. “In theater you have this world where you build,” she said of the process.
She said that working with her husband is a bit of a challenge. “When I’m on set I want him to treat me like I’m any other actor. It takes everyone and we’re doing this together. I feel that he is harder on me, that he pushed me and I am grateful for that.”
Ya’Ke sees the film as more a story of forgiveness. “If you don’t forgive, you are going to live a life of regret. You are always going to feel that you didn’t get a fair shot because you are holding on to this thing. I think in order to release yourself from that you have to forgive.” To which Jordan added, “In order for you to fly, you have to forgive them.”
“God can only do what you allow him to do,” said Ya’Ke. “And if you can’t let it go, He cannot come in because you are holding on to it. Film can change people minds and hearts and that is what it all about.”
The film played at the South by Southwest Film Festival where it received some very divergent reviews. Said Ya’Ke, “We have had good reviews and bad ones and it is what it is. It does make you feel good that someone can look at your work and can see what you saw. They can see what you were trying to accomplish. That it is working and that it is affecting people. We want a distribution deal but quite honestly if this film can touch somebody, if it can heal someone, if it can get someone to start talking about this so it can stop happening –that is what means the most to me.“
Ya’Ke is looking for a distribution deal but feels that there is a more important mission with the film Wolf. “If possible,” he said, “I would like to have screenings in churches across the nation. I think that this is something that churches need to see. It is a hard film to watch because the film is so real and we know that it is real. Having to watch that makes us admit that it is happening. Then if we admit it is happening, we have to do something about it. I want to take it to the nation.”
Jordan ended the discussion on a philosophical note. He said, “We are artists are job is to inspire—inspire to live, inspire to love, inspire to forgive. That is the one word that sums up everything to me.”