When NYU student Josh Grossberg traveled to the Astrodome in New Orleans as a volunteer with the Jewish student organization Hillel to help those stranded there after Hurricane Katrina, he didn’t realize the implications. With camera in hand, he captured the stories of many, but focused primarily on the journey of one, Dan Sheffer.
Dan Sheffer, a loan officer from Plantation, Florida, had also traveled to the Astrodome. His goal was to take people back with him and help them rebuild their lives. But the job wasn’t as easy as he thought. The challenges he faced and the successes and tragedies that followed were perfect for what would become Grossberg’s award-winning documentary “A Bridge Life: Finding Our Way Home.”
The film was recently shown at the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival (FLIFF), where it received a Spirit of Independence Award and a standing ovation, among a swell of tears and appreciation. The film premiered at the Newport Beach Film Festival; and, after FLIFF, it went on to Naples, where it won the Neapolitan Award. In 2010, he is looking forward to Worldfest Houston in April. It has also been accepted to the Victoria International Film Festival in Vancouver, Canada.
What makes this film a winner is not just the heart-wrenching and heart-warming inspirational context, but also the fresh way in which Grossberg uses historic footage interspersed with present-day shots. He creates intimacy and immediacy by allowing the subjects to tell the story in their own voices.
His ultimate goal is to present the film to television audiences for Katrina’s fifth anniversary. He also hopes to use it as a launching pad for “A Bridge Life” documentary series telling uplifting stories chronicling the challenges people face during disasters and how good Samaritans help people in crisis find stability in life. Grossberg coins it “Intervention” meets “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” but without the house.
“Anyone can make a difference,” he says. He hopes his film will encourage people to do just that, to show them that even if they do not have money to donate, they can give their time, their ears and their hearts.
“There was a lot of focus on New Orleans, which is great, but 200,000 were based in Houston. There also were no stories about what happened to these people afterward,” he adds.
Dan Sheffer was able to mobilize his community. He not only got them motivated, but also raised money, obtained discount tickets from the airlines, new driver’s licenses, Social Security cards, apartments, for a limited time, and more for those he would bring back.
When Grossberg went to the Astrodome he found that people wanted to talk to him. “People wanted to tell us their story,” he says, realizing that food and shelter were not enough, people needed support for their emotional and mental needs. By offering this type of outlet, he felt he was giving back.
As he followed Sheffer, he asked the question: “Imagine if you lost everything except clothes on your back … what would you do?”
He found that those stuck in the Astrodome felt safer in those conditions in many cases than trusting a stranger and moving to unknown waters. “Dan offered help. They said ‘No’,” says Grossberg. Eventually, seven stepped forward and took a chance.
Sheffer, who Grossberg classifies as an “everyman, pull your boot straps up kind of guy,” was a loan officer at this time, but later, due to the economy, ironically, would become an inspector for hurricane home preparedness.
Sheffer was surprised at the lack of trust. “I thought the airport would be inundated with people hoping to get out of there but no one was there. I knew also that the people inside the dome would be evacuees.” Sheffer spent four days and five nights there sleeping on a cot, not sure what dangers might befall him. He mentioned that the press and dignitaries took a tour of the Reliant Center, which was cleaner than and not as full as the dome, where the bulk of the people were camped out.
Once he gathered together the people who agreed to come with him, new friendships were formed. Unfortunately, the experience was not all positive. One evacuee in Dan’s group committed a horrendous crime, prompting Sheffer to question whether his assistance was worth it. But he determined it was, as his thoughts turned to the other six individuals he was able to help rebuild their lives. For them, it most assuredly was worth the risk.
The courageous effort unfolds on screen in this dynamic documentary. To find out more about Dan’s mission, the evacuees, and news on the latest screenings and awards, visit www.abridgelife.com. -DUO
"A Bridge of Life"
Finding Our Way Home
Written By Rachel Galvin