Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Hank Mandel's FIVE FRIENDS

By Nina Zipkin, BMFI Intern

Bromances may be a hit in Hollywood, but what role do meaningful male friendships play in a man's life, and how can they be cultivated?

Hank Mandel, the 65-year-old subject of the new documentary Five Friends, will share his insights as part of a panel discussion about male friendships following the screening of the movie at BMFI on Wednesday, March 14 at 7:30 pm. Based on Elbert Hubbard's saying, "My father always used to say that when you die, if you've got five real friends, you've had a great life," director Erik Santiago’s poignant film focuses on Hank's relationships with his five closest friends.

In anticipation of the event at BMFI, Hank took the time to answer some questions about his experience working on the film:

How did you decide to share the story of your friendships?

It was a very personal process. As I looked back on my life, I was very blessed to have five amazing friends in my life dating back from 40 to 10 years--all of these men supporting and growing with me through life. I wanted my two daughters to know these friends better and understand the importance of men having intimate, healthy, and strong male relationships. I thought making a film about these friendships would be a great gift for them to have. I thought the guys might like it as well. I discussed it with my wife and together we decided it would be a good thing to do for me and the kids.

Hank Mandel and his friend Scott in the new documentary, Five Friends

What was it like being followed around by the cameras?

This was easy, they were quite invisible. Erik Santiago, the director of the film, our cinematographer Sean Conaty, and their fantastic crew were masterful over the weeks and months of shooting. We shot about 50 hours of film for what turned out to be a 67-minute documentary. The crew was young, professional, and really enjoyed the topic. It was an all-male crew, except for the second camera woman, who really found the experience exciting and interesting. She enjoyed seeing the dynamics of men in very personal relationships. It made everyone on the crew think of their own relationships with men. We had excellent and diverse places to shoot on the two coasts, which I believe made the film more interesting.

Hank Mandel (right) with his friend Charlie

How did you collaborate with director Erik Santiago to create the film?

Erik and I had known each other for about 10 years. We worked together making training films at the bank where I worked. We knew how to work closely and collaboratively, but we never expected to do anything like this. We have very different talents and have found ways to collaborate and create an exciting and engaging film. We ended up with the same vision of the film. He did an amazing job editing the film with Kyle Gilbertson which made the story of the film quite impactful as it unfolds.

We were surprised how powerful the film was for men and women when we started holding focus groups with an uncut version of the final film. We wanted to see how men and women would react to the film. It was because of these focus groups that we began to understand that "Five Friends" was much more than a film for my daughters. It was a film that both men and women found as important, relevant and profound. Focus group audiences around the country encouraged us to see the film as an significant piece of work that needed to be shared broadly with both men and women.

You have had a wide-range of work experiences. What do you see as the connecting threads between the different stages of your career?

Great question. The clearest thread is ME! I am an eclectic individual with pieces of creativity and relationships throughout my life. Growing up in New York City, I loved theater and enjoyed being in and directing plays in school and camps. I went to Ithaca College as a Theater major and worked for five years producing and directing shows for the Country Music Association when I was in my late 40s. I have my graduate degree in Social Work which in many ways is a degree in understanding yourself and others in various relationships and situations. Both of my parents died when I was 30, so I think I found male friendships to be profound and important connections to fill my parental void. They were substitutes for family, since my brother and I lived far apart and had very different interests in life.

Hank with his friend Bob in Five Friends

Is there a lesson that you’d like to impart to your daughters from this experience of making the film?

I have tried to live a life of intimacy with my family and balance work with relationships at home. I hope I have done a decent job. Both my daughters love the movie. Years ago, my oldest daughter, Briana (30), had lunch one day with me and one of my friends, Barry. She was amazed by the quality of our conversation. It opened her eyes to the possibility of emotionally in-touch men. The movie was profound for her because: (a) she knew the friends and (b) she discovered things about me and my life she did not know. We hugged each other for a long time after her screening. It was wonderful, we are very close. Lauren, my youngest daughter (22), sat on my lap and cried after the movie ended. She said, "The best part of the movie is that she could share it with her children." (Whenever and if she has some.) It was very touching! She is very creative and loving! 

I think both of them see the quality of the collaborative experience with Erik and myself and how we work together and share life together. He is not one of the "Five Friends", but he and I have worked together in a way that makes us very special colleagues and "brothers". The lessons for my daughters are all about male relationships and for them to look for healthy, introspective, emotionally connected and smart men in their lives. I think they both do this now.

Is there a message or a lesson about male friendships that you hope people take away from the film? In your opinion and in your experience as a therapist, why is it a subject that’s so rarely addressed?

There are many lessons to be found in this documentary and it is wonderful that each person who sees the film finds lessons relevant to their lives. This is why the film has become so popular for men's groups, gender study programs at universities, therapy sessions, between friends, for both men and women at any age, and for the general public at movie venues. It is a story that has been needed in our society. Men are thirsty for male relationships, they just frequently do not know how to find them and nurture them. Our society often confuses male intimacy with male gay relationships. They are quite different, but have similar qualities of profound intimacy.

Hank hugs his friend Barry in a still from Five Friends

Men, in our society are often taught to be strong, hold their feeling inside and solve their own problems. Men are expected to achieve, but not expected to love other men unless it is "family love". Our society puts men in specific "strong behavior roles" that often do not meet their emotional needs and sense of isolation that men struggle with throughout their lives. Pop culture also puts men into stereotypes of being awkward, stupid, insensitive, funny and macho. This not real. It is a corner we are painted into while society provides women all the emotional opportunity and skills to be intimate with other women and men. The film Five Friends shows the audience that men are totally capable of as many complex and important emotions as women. This was a story ready and needing to be told.

Thanks for sharing such great insights into the film, Hank!

In addition to answering questions as part of the panel discussion after the film screening, Hank Mandel will also be a featured speaker at a workshop about male relationships at Widener University on Saturday, March 17.

Nina Zipkin is a senior at Bryn Mawr College currently interning at BMFI.

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