James Bird used to hear the same bedtime story every night as he fell asleep to the sound of his mother’s voice in the back seat of their station wagon—their only permanent home in California.She would weave a fantastical tale, changing the characters or the circumstances with each retelling. But one element remained the same: the protagonists were always looking for what they didn’t have—identity, belonging, love, happiness.
Mr. Bird has lived that same quest his entire, fast-paced life. And, finally, it is starting to slow down and fall into place for the 33-year-old screenwriter, thanks to two produced feature films—“Chasing Shakespeare” and “Eat Spirit Eat”—and one big award.
It is the first he’s ever won.
This weekend, he will receive the Self-Esteem Lives Forever—or SELF—Award at the Artisan Festival International: World Peace Initiative Hamptons, a three-day event at Southampton United Methodist Church and Guild Hall in East Hampton that celebrates diversity through more than 25 film screenings—including the two by Mr. Bird—panel events, fine art exhibitions, dance performances and fashion expos, according to founder Princess Angelique Monét.
“It’s about promoting humanity, peace and love,” Ms. Monét, an East Hampton resident, said of the festival last week during a telephone interview. “If each individual can walk away with an understanding of someone else’s culture, other than their own, this is how we can assist in the peace efforts.”
It is a lack of education that has led to bigotry, intolerance and discrimination around the world, according to “Forget Us Not” filmmaker Heather Connell. The most infamous and extreme case being the annihilation of 6 million Jews at more than 1,500 concentration camps across Europe during the Holocaust.
But the death count was actually 11 million people during the World War II genocide, she reported, 5 million of whom were not Jewish, which is the subject matter of her documentary that will close the festival on Sunday at Guild Hall.
Ms. Connell did the math for the first time in the 1990s after stumbling across a classification chart inside the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. She recognized the yellow star and inverted yellow triangle immediately, she said, but didn’t know what any of the other colored triangles meant.
When she found out, she was shocked and embarrassed.
Political prisoners were marked with red. Criminals were marked with green. “Asocials,” including Roma (gypsies), nonconformists, vagrants and other groups, were marked with black or brown. Jehovah’s Witnesses were marked with purple. And homosexuals were marked with pink.
“There was a personal note in there for me. I do, in fact, have a pink triangle tattooed on me,” Ms. Connell, who is a lesbian, explained last week from her home in California. “The pink triangle is a symbol in the gay community—and it’s a positive one. I had no idea it originated in the concentration camps.”
It struck her hard, she said, as did the persecution and subsequent death of the non-Jewish victims.
“I knew I had to tell these stories,” she said. “If I didn’t tell the stories of these survivors now, they were going to die with them.”
The research process began in 2009, followed by interviews with four survivors. She found Robert Wagemann in New Jersey. He was born with a disability and nearly euthanized for being “imperfect” until his mother sneaked him out of the hospital. He spent the war in hiding with his parents, who were Jehovah’s Witnesses.
And Natalia Orloff, a Ukraine child who marched with her family to the Polish border before being put on a train and sent to a work camp. She came to Ms. Connell through her mother—who had sat next to the Holocaust survivor in their Massachusetts choir group for years and never knew her story.
For the remaining two interviews, Ms. Connell had to travel a little farther from home.
In Virginia, she found Vera Young, who was a Polish Catholic teen separated from the rest of her family and sent to a concentration camp, where she sewed uniforms for her Nazi captors before being sent on a 900-mile death march.
“She talked about how, at one point, they shoved them all in a barn supposedly to sleep,” Ms. Connell said. “And then, somebody lit the barn on fire. They all ran, screaming and stampeding out of the barn. You just don’t really know how to react sometimes. It’s so beyond your level of experience.”
During a visit to Poland, Ms. Connell found herself sitting across from survivor Ceija Stojka, a Roma girl who saw four concentration camps. The first was Auschwitz, where she received her tattoo. The next was Birkenau, where her brother died. The third was Ravensbrück, a labor camp for women where she and her mother were brutalized by a sadistic guard. And the last was Bergen-Belsen.
“She takes a drag of her cigarette and says, ‘Here is where the real misery begins,’” Ms. Connell said. “I didn’t even know what to say. We’re exhausted, we’re crying, we feel like our hearts have been ripped out after hearing about the horrors she had been through. To have her say that, I dreaded to hear what was coming. What could possibly get worse at that point?”
It did get worse, the filmmaker said, and Ms. Stojka relayed it all very matter-of-factly.
Just as Mr. Bird told the story of his childhood last week during a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles, California.
For the first 15 years of his life, it was completely normal to bounce between motels and apartments up and down the California coast, only to have the local sheriff escort him, his mother and siblings out at the end of every month. It was normal to sleep in random parking lots when they couldn’t find a bed. And it was normal not to have a father.
“I grew up in a lot of the black neighborhoods. I didn’t know anyone there who had a dad, either,” Mr. Bird, who is half Native American, said. “I thought TV was so weird because they had these adult male figures.”
Mr. Bird’s older brother, Dan, coped by turning to violence. His younger sister, Amy, turned to drugs and alcohol. The filmmaker, the middle child, took a different approach. He tried to be the father figure they were missing.
At age 17, he dropped out of high school and went to work at the local mall in order to make rent. Two years later, he moved by himself to his mother’s hometown in Duluth, Minnesota. He craved family. But soon, he craved purpose.
“I probably had at least 100 jobs in my life, random jobs,” he said. “I was like, ‘You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to take everything in my brain and use that, instead of using my hands working. I’m going to write stories.’ So I started doing that and, for some reason, it’s taking off.”
His personal story fueled his second project, “Eat Spirit Eat,” a semi-autobiographical film screening during the Family Film Program Block on Sunday, starting at 3 p.m. But first, his debut, “Chasing Shakespeare,” will screen as the festival’s Centerpiece Film on Saturday during a reception starting at 6 p.m.
He wrote the feature film from his garage—before he had a desk—in less than a month, he said. Everything he writes is fast, he said, because it has to be. He won’t tear himself away from a project until it is done.
Directed by Norry Niven, “Chasing Shakespeare” recounts the beginning, end and rebirth of a love affair between Venus—acted by Chelsea Ricketts as young Venus and Tantoo Cardinal later in life—and William—portrayed by Mike Wade as young William and by seasoned actor Danny Glover as the more mature William.
“I loved the screenplay. It spoke so much to me about love and the hereafter,” Mr. Glover wrote in an email last week. “But sometimes you read something and then when you see the film, it’s a letdown. For this film, nothing could be further from that truth. I couldn’t believe how good it was when I saw it … I’m really very proud to have been a part of it.”
During a stormy day on location in Texas, Mr. Bird ducked into a production tent to escape the rain. When he looked up, there was Mr. Glover, sitting in his chair, eyes closed, rehearsing the next scene.
Mr. Bird stood there and watched as the veteran actor recited the lines he had written.
“Everyone has that first time when you’re like, ‘I saw my words on the screen.’ This was mine,” he said. “That was when I got all the chills. It was very surreal.”
And it was in that moment, he said, that Mr. Bird found what he had been looking for his entire life.
The Artisan Festival International: World Peace Initiative Hamptons—featuring film screenings, panels and fashion and fine art exhibitions—will be held from Friday, November 1, through Sunday, November 3, at Southampton United Methodist Church and Guild Hall in East Hampton. For ticket information and a full schedule of events, visit afiworldpeaceinitiative.org.