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Local filmmaker offers a human approach to hate crimes issues

by Matt Cummings

published October 15th 2008

We need more optimists like Toledo filmmaker Tom Hofbauer.

In his award winning film, “In the Company of Strangers,” the main character, Brian Nowicki, the son of an upper middle-class family, gets arrested for assaulting a gay couple in an alley with a group of his thuggish friends. In lieu of jail time, a progressive but no-nonsense judge sentences Brian to 600 hours of community service at a local AIDS hospice. Brian’s response: “I’d rather go to prison.”

A few weeks into his community service, exposed to the daily realities of life and death at an AIDS hospice, Brian’s resolve to hatefully sit out the clock begins to fade. He befriends James, a patient, and tries to reconcile him with his estranged son. After James’ death, a devastated Brian humbly returns home to salvage his relationship with his own father.

Hofbauer, who wrote, directed, and produced the movie in Toledo, was a camera operator and location producer for the Academy Award nominated documentary “Twist of Faith.” In “Strangers,” Hofbauer says he wanted to explore an issue he feels is underrepresented in film.

“Movies are a very powerful way to get a message across to people,” he said. “There isn’t anyone who goes to movies who hasn’t been hypnotized by a story at one time or another. One of the reasons this subject matter was chosen was to draw attention to this alarming trend in our country. Violence against gays is a fast-growing subset of hate crimes, and very little has been written about it in the film community. In exploring the human journey, I hope to show the goodness which I believe resides in all people, and which can, with proper coaxing, be brought into the light of day from a person who has buried that goodness deep inside.”

As with any first feature, “In the Company of Strangers” has a few hairs out of place, but with an overall strong cast, a well-structured story, and some very impressive direction and camerawork, the film succeeds in being a compelling drama. However, it’s this relentless hopefulness and optimism that is the film’s finest quality.

But redemption is risky business. We cynics of the world are often skeptical when one among us sees the error of his wicked ways and turns to follow the straight and narrow to the land of happily-ever-after. We know, as one beat and booze-bloated cynic put it, that “walking on water wasn’t built in a day.”

Brian’s redemption has a slightly unbelievable quality until you realize that redemption is not the point. “In the Company of Strangers” is not a formulaic heartstrings-tugging after-school special, but a modern day morality tale in which Brian functions as a kind of Everyman forced to take a good hard look at who he is, at his assumptions, prejudices, and values. He comes to that fabled fork in the road and must make a choice. And while, as a cynic I may furrow my brow and grimace skeptically at the legitimacy of Brian’s radical change of heart, as a humanist and as a human, I’m glad he changed.

“In the Company of Strangers” isn’t the kind of movie that’s meant to change the world. It’s meant to make you think in the right direction.


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