Karina Epperlein’s full-length documentary follows the college careers of six young, black men from Northeast Ohio.
Finding the Gold Within
by Mitch Allen
Growing up in postwar Germany, filmmaker Karina Epperlein wondered how an entire culture could fall prey to what she calls, “murderous collective insanity.” She has explored such darkness in films about incarcerated women (Voices from Inside); victims of the Armenian genocide (I Will Not Be Sad In This World); the children of Argentina’s Dirty War (Awakening from Sorrow); and a dancer who overcomes the seemingly crippling loss of his leg (Phoenix Dance).
“I use cinematic language to make visible the light within,” she says.
With her newest film, which has been hailed by critics as “intimate and poetic,” Epperlein shines her light on the United States, more specifically, on Northeast Ohio.
In Finding the Gold Within, she follows six African-American college students from Akron for three and a half years. These young men have each been mentored by a unique urban youth program called Alchemy, which uses the telling and analysis of mythological stories and fairy tales to bridge the gap between urban adolescents and the rest of society. As a result, the protagonists are better equipped than most—armed with self-confidence and critical-thinking skills, ready to become “the heroes within their own stories.”
In the film (watch the trailer), these young men grow before our eyes, navigating racial provocations, crime, and drugs, seeking support from friends, estranged fathers, and wise grandmothers.
Gold made its world premiere last fall at the Mill Valley Film Festival just north of San Francisco, where Berkeley High School vice principal Jorge Melgoza was moved to write, “This is a must see for anyone currently working with young men of color. Not only does it show our young men how to find their power from within, but it shows them how to heal. We are taught how to inflict pain, we are taught how to absorb pain, but we are never taught how to heal from the pain.”
Dr. G. Kwame Scruggs, the founder of the Akron-based Alchemy, gave Epperlein entry to his core group of 28 young, black teenagers who for years had been listening to and exploring mythological stories.
“Mutual respect and recognition was born at our first meeting, and trust was developed as I kept coming back as promised,” Epperlein writes in her director’s statement. “I grew close to many in the core group, but especially to the six protagonists that I selected to keep following closely. They granted me intimate access to their lives, to their deepest thoughts and feelings. As I look for the shining essence of each young man, I am moved to my deepest core.”
Kwame Scruggs earned his Ph.D. in mythology from Pacifica Institute after finding inspiration from the writings and lectures of the late Joseph Campbell.
“Alchemy is not a ‘poor pitiful us’ program,” he asserts. “Our mission is to help urban adolescents develop a sense of purpose in life and successfully function as members of a family, school, and our community.”
Through this tough love approach—combined with the creation of a safe haven, a temenos, in which to discuss innermost fears and desires—Kwame and his team of facilitators serve as guides for students who must begin what Campbell called “the hero’s journey.”
“These young men must become the hero in their own story,” Kwame says. “They can’t wait around for someone else. This notion is clear in many ancient myths as well as in modern myths—from Star Wars to The Matrix to Harry Potter. No one is responsible but yourself. You are the hero.”