“How can I invite people to my film while California is on fire?” my friend Robin McKenna asked me recently, in distress. She had dedicated five years of her life traveling the world to create the breathtaking feature-length documentary, GIFT, which weaves together four real-life stories of creativity and how we share our gifts. Now she was preparing for the upcoming US premiere in San Francisco, just as the worst wildfires in the nation’s history were still smoldering nearby, across an inconceivable swath of devastation.

“How can you not invite them?” I replied. “You’re not flippantly saying, ‘Hey, let’s go to the movies!’ Your film is exactly what is needed, now more than ever.”

My relationship with Robin and GIFT began less than a year ago at the documentary’s world premiere in Montréal. As I walked out into the night at the end of the film, I was filled with hope and inspiration – and a deep sense of craving. It was a craving for the world the film had revealed – “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” as Charles Eisenstein puts it. A world that is apparently already here but not yet widely distributed. It was also a craving for my own generous creative expression to be uncaged, even as I know the key is in my own hand. And most of all, it was a craving to talk about it with others! The film held too many layers to unpack and process alone. And the world it depicted was filled with delicious community.

To assuage my cravings, I reached out to Robin to propose that we co-host a series of smaller screenings followed by thoughtfully hosted dialogue among participants. The two events we’ve held so far each brought together about 40 people. And both times, the experience was delightfully rich and profoundly nourishing, leaving us all with the strong sense that more had become possible – and that more was urgently needed.

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And still, I understood Robin’s hesitation about the upcoming screening in San Francisco. The phrase that came to mind was “fiddling while Rome burns,” referring to the legend that Emperor Nero merrily – and callously – played the fiddle during the Great Fire of 64 AD. In fact, the fiddle hadn’t yet been invented at that time, and there is some reason to believe the story was spread by his political opponents, in an early example of fake news. But centuries later, the phrase remains a harsh dismissal of something deemed frivolous and unnecessary, especially during a time of great peril.  

Here’s the thing, though. In times like these, we need to be able to imagine life on the other side of our peril. We need everyone to show up with their best talents and gifts. And we need to help each other find the courage to share those gifts with love and generosity. It is at times like these that we most need art and beauty, because they remind us of the fullness of our humanity.

“I’ve seen it in lots of contexts,” wrote French installation artist JR in the days after our second screening event. “The power of art is to create conversation. Those conversations might help chang[e] the perception we have about a subject. And this is how you change the world – by bringing back this conversation.”

As we all become increasingly aware of the perils humanity faces, perhaps the most powerful thing we can do is find – and value – the art that can bring us together with others in community and conversation about things that truly matter.

Maybe Nero understood all this. We’ll never know. As for Rome, even if its legacy is not entirely a positive one, particularly for conquered cultures and civilizations, we do know that a glorious city made of marble and stone grew up from the ashes of the Great Fire. Maybe it was the fiddle after all.


Watch the GIFT trailer here: https://vimeo.com/283716447.

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