While shooting a movie in Ethiopia, James Kicklighter wandered alone at dawn into some high grass, hoping to film the sort of molten, birth-of-creation sunrise that symbolizes Africa.
Adjusting his camera, he was startled by a man brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle. Realizing they shared no common language, Kicklighter began pantomiming his intentions, pointing frantically to the camera and then the horizon. The man responded with a motion of his weapon that indicated an ominous command: march. He forced a panicked, sweating Kicklighter farther into the undergrowth at gunpoint.
“I genuinely thought that field in Ethiopia was the last thing I would ever see,” says Kicklighter, who was 21 at the time. “No one would have found me.”
Finally, they reached a clearing. The guard pointed his rifle toward the sky and left as abruptly as he had appeared. He helpfully had led Kicklighter to a better vantage-point, where the knockout opening scene was filmed for “Land of Higher Peace,” one of three projects the up-and-coming filmmaker has entered in this month’s Macon Film Festival.
“At the end of the day, I got the shot we were waiting for, and that is all that counts,” he says.
For Kicklighter, movie-making is not just a route to the red carpet; it is a risky calling gratified by intangible but deeply felt rewards. “Land of Higher Peace” explores the daily challenges of Ethiopia — the “pain and beauty” — through the eyes of American Christians at an orphanage in Gondar. His other festival entries also are intimate dramas of human connection: “Winter,” filmed in a north Georgia cabin, and “The Car Wash,” a “coming of old age” story starring grande dame Edith Ivey, who appeared in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” (During filming, Ivey’s affecting monologues about mortality and loneliness left even the well-rehearsed crew in tears.)
“There’s nothing wrong with making a popcorn flick for pure entertainment,” Kicklighter says, “but film is such a powerful medium that I think there’s a responsibility there to go a step further and interact with the audience, to ask questions that make viewers evaluate their own lives and what is really important. I don’t have the answers, but I like to use strong storytelling to pose questions, with the hope that viewers will seek out their own answers. I received an email from a lady in Pennsylvania telling me that she had just watched ‘The Car Wash’ and for the first time felt she wasn’t alone. Just that one message made that entire project worthwhile.”
Kicklighter, a 22-year-old from Bellville, Georgia, is inevitably tagged as a prodigy, wunderkind, and lovable “old soul,” with eight movies to his credit, more in the works, and a shelf of awards from indie film festivals and arts organizations around the world. He established JamesWorks Entertainment at 16 with the mission “to create socially-conscious films that engage our audiences through new media to action in their personal lives, communities, and around the globe.” So, in a Tinseltown yearbook, he might be voted “least likely to appear in the credits of a Michael Bay schlockbuster.” Kicklighter’s visions of “pain and beauty” do not involve the shoot-’em-up car chases, breast-implant buffets, and other cheap effects that define big-budget American cinema. Granted, his most recent film, “Followed,” which was shot in Macon, features zombies, but it may be his most ambitious “message movie” to date, redefining horror in terms of every-day guilt. These un-dead do not eat brains; they go deeper, tugging balefully at your conscience, haunting you for lapses in social responsibility, for sins of omission.
“The zombies represent all of the invisible people in our lives we should care about — the homeless person under the bridge, kids in a sweatshop — but don’t,” he says. “At best, we throw money at the problem, but we don’t stop to touch these people, to feel them, to bring them back into the community. One of the zombies in ‘Followed’ is wearing shoes made of plastic water bottles because we’d seen a child in Ethiopia wearing those, scrounged from the trash. So we weren’t trying to be campy or cheesy; we’re using zombies to illustrate real social divisions.”
Kicklighter does not have stars in his eyes, but he clearly has seen the light of an African sunrise. His agonized sincerity is authentic, in part because he has learned some hard lessons about the importance of a clear conscience himself. Early on, when he was just a kid, traumatic grief merged with his flair for Magical Thinking, and, like so many great illusionists, he started his career with a forgivable lie.
“I grew up in a town that was exactly one square mile in size with a population of 150 people,” he says, referring to Bellville, in southeast Georgia.
His father and mother were teachers who assiduously “exposed him to in-utero classical music,” notes his mother, Barbara, who came from a British family of vaudeville performers and learned bohemians.
“James was literally reading in the crib — he could read at age 2 1/2,” she says proudly.
The following year, he began chattering about an alternate “universe called ‘Toonsvilva,’” peopled with a sprawling cast of characters who experienced an array of ups and downs, including death and resurrection.
“I thought he might become a preacher,” Barbara Kicklighter recalls. “We were a close and highly verbal family, always snuggling together to read beautiful books and tell stories instead of watching much TV. James’ father, who taught chemistry and physics, was this charismatic person who could walk into a room and instantly become best friends with everyone. I see his warmth in James.”
When the dreamy, friendly boy was 13, his father, Jerry Asbury Kicklighter, mysteriously died.
“He was perfectly healthy one week and dead the next,” he says. “We’ve speculated that it may have been SARS, but that hasn’t been confirmed.”
Kicklighter retreated deep into his imagination.
“It’s very traumatic for anyone to lose a parent, but at that age, after the quiet set in, with all of the loneliness, I went back into that childhood mode, using movies to escape.”
He studied show-biz with an overachiever’s zeal, crafted scripts, and, along the way, appropriated the accomplishments of a real screenwriter, Michael Goldenberg, known for his work in the Harry Potter series.
“I made up this crazy story that I was a writer and producer for Universal Pictures with these screen credits, and I began planting stuff on the Internet, which led to newspapers and radios interviewing me and reporting this information as true — nobody checked facts too closely,” he says. “It spiraled out of control.”
At nearby Brewton-Parker College, a drama professor named Mark Ezra Stokes heard about this budding genius and invited him to collaborate on a documentary about a character actor who grew up in Augusta. That Guy: the Legacy of Dub Taylor, featuring interviews with Dixie Carter and John Mellencamp, became Kicklighter’s first legitimate film project. He was still a teen-ager.
“During the process of making that film, I sensed something was off about the credentials James was claiming, and we code-talked around it until after filming when I finally asked him what was up,” Stokes says. “More importantly, during the project, my wife and I had fallen in love with the real James — who is so much cooler than the not-real James — and decided that whatever he was hiding, we were going to stand with him through thick and thin.”
In 2008, Kicklighter issued an apologetic confession to the media and Facebook friends, who were mostly supportive and understanding in their comments.
“I absolutely regret misleading people,” he says, “but it was almost a way of putting myself through film school because I ended up learning so much. At some point, the lie became truth. It was sort of a sad ‘Catch Me If You Can’ story that seems like an eternity ago.”
Kicklighter earned a bachelor’s degree in public relations from Georgia Southern, working on films during weekends. When he is not on location, he lodges with Stokes and his wife, Kasey, who form the core of his production team, outside Savannah. He recently was profiled in Examiner.com’s “CEOs Under 25″ series.
“The Car Wash” notably has won several awards, including “best drama” at the Melbourne Independent Filmmakers Festival. Kicklighter began writing the script, about the meeting of two isolated souls, on his flight back from Ethiopia.
“I was reflecting on something that an elderly woman said to me at a car wash,” he recalls. “The only words she said were, ‘My husband died.’ I started thinking about modern communication, how young people are so busy texting that they haven’t learned how to converse with someone like that. That turned into this movie, which is about her acceptance of aging and death, that things are not going to be what they were, but primarily it is about this young man’s realization at the end that he needs to learn to connect in real ways.”
In Kicklighter’s richly imagined universe of pain of beauty, characters find redemption and resurrection through community.