For more than 20 years, Oregon filmmaker Reed Harkness captured his younger half-brother Sam on Super 8 film — classic home movie style.
“It’s a very long-term documentary where I follow my younger brother, Sam, growing up from age 11 to 36. I started this in 1997,” Harkness says.
Then in 2000, Sam’s mom and Reed’s stepmom, Jois Harkness, disappeared without warning.
That’s when the brothers started looking for clues to find her, while sharing their journey through Reed’s camera lens.
“From there, it sort of takes a real deep dive into family,” Harkness says. “How do you be a brother? How do you be a son? How do you be a parent?”
Combining those old home movies with newer material, Harkness weaves together a journey of discovery as the brothers search for answers. The big questions: Why did Jois leave? And what happens if and when they find her?
The result was their new film “Sam Now.”
The documentary explores issues of abandonment, breaking the cycles of intergenerational trauma and the healing that happens afterward.
As the eldest brother, Reed Harkness took it upon himself to ask those difficult questions about Jois’ disappearance, even if people didn’t necessarily want to discuss it.
“It’s almost just like, ‘This is uncomfortable. We don’t talk about it.’ But I’ve noticed, and you can see in the story of Sam, it can be really hurtful when families don’t talk,” he says.
As younger brother Sam ages in the film, he begins to grapple with the knowledge that he, like all people, possesses the power to leave a loved one behind.
“He gets to a point where he’s had a breakdown and he’s realized what the impact of this abandonment has been for him,” Reed Harkness says, “And then he notices that he’s capable of doing the same things in relationships. So Sam begins to work to try to break that cycle.”
The film premiered earlier this year at Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival where it quickly became a fan favorite.
After going on multiple film festival tours across the U.S. and Canada, the brothers entered the film in the Zurich Film Festival, where they ended up winning the Golden Eye, the top prize in the festival’s documentary category.
“It’s an international competition, so we’re representing the U.S. I’m totally honored,” he says.
The brothers will next present “Sam Now” this weekend at the BendFilm Festival. The film will be screened Friday and Saturday as part of the festival’s in-person schedule.
“Their theme this year is connection. This movie is totally about connection and I’m just really proud to be an Oregon filmmaker that is presenting at Bend,” Harkness says.
“Sam Now” will also air as part of PBS’ Independent Lens series in 2023.
“I didn’t know if people would really respond to this the way I’d hoped,” says Harkness. “But what I’ve seen happen is that people are relating to Sam a lot, but they’re also relating to me and they’re also relating to Jois.”
Ultimately, Harkness hopes audiences will walk away from the film with a stronger sense of family.
“There’s potential to help to be more connected, to help raise people up, to help listen to better communication,” he says. “We don’t have to all separate and just go our separate ways. I think family might be the most important thing.”
Reed previously spoke with OPB’s John Notarianni. Click here to listen.