The Stories Behind Absent

As we sat backstage at Central Christian Church in Mesa, Ariz., the 2,000-seat sanctuary filled with eager fans—those of both Metallica's lead singer James Hetfield and of filmmaker Justin Hunt, who directed 2008’s award-winning documentary American Meth. The sold-out crowd came to screen Hunt’s latest documentary Absent, which catalogs the long-term effects of absentee fathers, followed by a Q&A with Hunt and Hetfield.

The last scenes of the film are footage from an interview with Hetfield as he tells the story of his dad’s departure when he was 13 years old. “He left a note—and it wasn’t even to me,” Hetfield shares. It's one of many moving interviews in the documentary. Hunt spotlights celebrities, prostitutes and school children, interspersing their stories with the devastating statistics that plague the lives of the fatherless, as well as those whose dads have been present but passive or abusive.
While it’s hard to measure the success of Hunt’s message on a broad
societal scale, the documentary itself has already been invited to 15 festivals in seven countries, winning six awards, including Best
Documentary and Audience Choice. Hunt is currently booking screenings
at churches throughout the country. And as I watched the movie from the back of the crowded room that night, I surveyed the span of demographics: those with and without fathers, those inside and outside the Church proper, both the tattooed and the suited. Considering that the vast majority of children grow up with fathers who are emotionally detached or disengaged, the movie’s wide appeal is no surprise.

“Nearly everyone has a ‘father wound,' ” Hunt says, using a term he adopted from his friend, Father Richard Rohr. “The father wound is so deep and so all-pervasive in so many parts of the world that its healing could well be the most radical social reform conceivable.” And that’s what Hunt has set out to do.

“You show me a person that is angry, violent, depressed, selfish, sexually immoral, hyper-driven or one of several other personality types, and I’ll show you a father wound,” Hunt says. “Nothing is more important to a young man, or a young woman, than a father’s love, respect and acceptance. And nothing is more damaging than when the question ‘Am I good enough?’ is asked of the father by the child, and the answer is silence.”

Hunt’s passion for these topics becomes evident within moments of talking to him. He spouts wisdom about fatherhood—things he learned from his mentor, things he knows from being a single parent. And Hetfield, who has become a close friend, champions his cause.

“I love that I can be here tonight,” Hetfield says. “I think [Metallica] fans are up for challenges. They’re not afraid of coming to churches. And I love that they might be coming to see me, having listened to the songs I wrote about this subject—things they really connected to—and end up seeing another extension of me altogether. And then there are people here who might not expect to relate to my story, but they may end up finding a point of relation and think, ‘Hey, that’s like me,’ ” he continues. “I’m trying to learn how to be a good dad, but there are things I still don’t know. So I’ll call up [Hunt] and say: ‘Here’s what happened with my kid. What do I do?’ We’re all learning.”

Much of Hetfield’s music has been influenced by the void his dad
left. “Especially ‘Unforgiven I,' 'II' and 'III,’ ” he says. “I kept writing
more versions of it because my feelings about what happened were
constantly evolving. It went from ‘blame, blame, blame’ to ‘what do I do
now?’ to ‘how can I blame you?’”
His approach, not only to his late father’s memory but also to his
three children, has shifted over the past decade, as he has both sobered
up and grown in wisdom.

“Go out and live your life, go for those dreams that are scary,” he says
to his children. “It’s OK to make mistakes. I will be here to support
you through the mistakes. And most of all, be honest. The truth is so
hugely important, especially if you’re scared. I worked out a lot of
stuff in my recovery that I want to share with my kids someday instead
of just hiding it and throwing it away. I want to use those experiences
to strengthen my family.”

Absent doesn’t offer pat answers, which is refreshing. Hunt lets the problem create its own weight in the viewer’s chest, knowing that whatever compelled them to see the film will also prompt them to greater action in dealing with their own ‘father wound’. The film’s website provides a place where people can write a letter to their father. The entries show everything from vitriolic outbursts to stoic resignation. But the bulk of others have found peace and reconciliation through the therapeutic opportunity.

“This isn’t a ‘one-size fits all’ kind of thing,” Hunt says. “My solution to my problem isn’t going to fit someone else’s wound. We want to help them find the tools that fit their situation.”

The accounts of healing are surfacing one at a time, not only for Hetfield, but for others featured in the film and, undoubtedly, its viewers. It just goes to show that sometimes speaking your story out loud is all the catalyst you need for change.

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