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"From chaos to balance:" Panama City filmmakers highlight Bay County Jail rehabilitation

'Long Walk from Darkness' explores personal rehab class for inmates

Tony Simmons
The News Herald

PANAMA CITY — A documentary filmed inside the Bay County Jail will have its online premiere next weekend.

"A Long Walk from Darkness," focusing on a rehabilitation program at the jail, was produced by local filmmakers Brian Hilario and Justin Butler, the partners behind Red Lightswitch. Hilario said, as the primary director, the interaction with the inmates had a deep emotional impact on him.

"Long Walk from Darkness" takes a look at a rehabilitation program at the Bay County Jail. It will premiere online Feb. 26.

"The lines of art and reality blurred tremendously and it was impossible not to become emotionally invested in the success of these men. It made every success and every failure really hit me hard," Hilario said. "In the end, I was very proud of what we were able to do. I am also very honored to have been able to document this incredible moment in some of these men’s lives where they truly decided they wanted to change."

The project grew out of a chance conversation between Hilario and an acquaintance, Dr. Ed Naggiar, as they bumped into each other in a lunch line.

"He expressed that he wanted to make a documentary on the eight-week 'Resilience' program but did not have the resources," Hilario said. "We took it upon ourselves to try and tell the story of this ... journey from chaos to balance."

More( Jan. 2020):Bay County Jail at the finish line for repairs

With few resources themselves, Hilario and Butler first met with the sheriff and warden, then sat through a class already in progress, "so we would have an idea of what we were getting ourselves into," Hilario said. They grabbed a single camera and two crew members and followed 15 inmates as they navigated the ups and downs of a program meant to harden their personal resolve.

Members of Resilience Program Class 004 are shown working together in a scene from 'Long Walk from Darkness' by Red Lightswitch.

"Through an eight-week course of classwork and physical training, the program teaches the inmates the skills necessary to show strength and humility when faced with the chaos of life both behind bars and upon release," Hilario said.

Designed by Naggiar, the "Resilience" Program pushed the inmates both physically and emotionally while providing them with classroom training and resources to understand the psychological forces shaping their lives.

"We decided to shoot in a claustrophobic style, to replicate the closed-in feeling of addiction and incarceration," Hilario said. "Everyone, from the inmates to the crew members, underwent a change through the intimate and intense experience of following this program."

Over the next two years, the team worked closely with the Bay County Sheriff's Office and Naggiar (a retired U.S. Navy Seal) to produce "Long Walk from Darkness," which follows Class 004 as they attempt to apply these lessons and change their lives for the better.

With 40-plus hours of footage, they were daunted by how to tell this story. Neither of them had the luxury of working full time on the post-production process, and then Hurricane Michael threw a huge wrench in the experience.

Also (2019):Panama City filmmaker premieres eerie short

"The release date was pushed indefinitely and we were reeling just to get our feet under us. After couch surfing, moving our families and lots of banging our heads against the wall, we finally pressed the 'export' button," Hilario said. "We were very fortunate to have had test audiences help us make this film as great as we could."

"Long Walk From Darkness" will have its online premiere at 6 p.m. Feb. 26. Tickets are $10, available now at Eventbrite.com; after tickets are purchased, ticketholders will receive the link to the screening. Due to limited capacity, the screening will be offered again at 6 p.m. Feb. 27.

The first private viewing of the finished film was held with everyone who was involved with the project, including some of the ex-inmates from Class 004. It was an emotional experience, having those men in the room, Hilario said. 

"What started off as a conversation in a lunch line became a labor of love," Hilario said. "No budget, no big releases or deals, just a story we wanted to tell, and if all it ever became was that preview with those men and teachers it would have been worth it for us. Luckily, we have the opportunity to share it with the wider world, and we’re excited to hopefully bring some of that emotion to a bigger audience."

Justin Butler, left, and Brian Hilario are the founders of Red Lightswitch, a regional production company.

Hilario is a U.S. Army veteran who served multiple tours overseas before finding a new career in filmmaking. With a background in theater, he spent the first years of his career writing, directing and acting on stage before meeting Butler. Hilario has appeared in several local stage productions, notably working with Gulf Coast State College.

"It doesn’t always make for critical successes, but we learned very early on ... that if we aren’t staying true to our own passions, emotions, likes and dislikes, we lose the motivation and spark we need to make great work," Hilario said.

Butler fell in love with filmmaking at an early age, taking every class and working on every project he could find. After college, he spent most of his time as a writer and live performer before meeting Hilario and starting their company.

"Red Lightswitch was founded on a single premise: a short film a week, every week," Butler said. "With this mantra, Red Lightswitch went on to make 17 short films in 17 weeks, one four-episode web series, and a short documentary in the first year of operation."

Red Lightswitch is currently producing the live comedy show "Wildly Unnecessary," a three-act performance that finishes with a 30-minute long-form improv scene inspired by prompts from the audience. Originally based in Panama City, the company is now located in Pensacola.