By David Rosenfeld
From a small apartment off Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, Steven C. Barber works the phones, contacting donors and pitching ideas among a cluttered desk of pens and papers. CNN plays on a flat screen monitor above his computer like a one-man newsroom.
He used to live here before moving in with his longtime partner and Channel 16 reporter Tamara Henry. It’s here that Barber has raised more than $2 million on a handful of documentaries that have made big impacts in recent years. It was partially by accident, and wholly embraced, that his journey as a filmmaker has centered on the stories of US combat veterans from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“As far as I’m concerned we are telling the American narrative at the highest level and making no money for it,” Barber said.
That last part isn’t so much a point of pride for a principled filmmaker as much as the realities of a business where projects are expected to bomb. But that’s not the point, said Barber, whose success is measured not in dollars but awareness and political action.
“When you go to a billionaire and tell him he’s not going to make any money, he’s never heard of that before,” Barber said. “But they all have foundations and that’s who we approach.”
Four years ago he made a film called Unbeaten, which chronicled several Paralympic athletes including Blake Leeper, a young man born without legs below the knee. Now his most recent project tells Leeper’s story, known as the American blade-runner. Like Oscar Pistorius before him, Leeper runs with carbon fiber blades as artificial legs. The two actually competed against one another in Beijing and elsewhere. So when the news broke that Pistorius was accused of murdering his girlfriend earlier this year, Barber and Leeper found themselves on CNN and other news outlets talking with reporters about anything they knew about Pistorius.
That connection is slowly wearing off, which is a good thing at this point for Leeper, who wants to be known for his inspiration rather than a murky association to an accused killer. This Fourth of July Leeper appeared on Good Morning America shortly before heading to Lyon, France where he recently won a gold medal in the Mens 400 meter relay in the International Paralympic Committee games.
Though Leeper was born without legs below the knee, Barber said his story directly applies to thousands of combat veterans that came home without limbs.
“I know his story saves lives,” Barber said. “I get letters from paraplegics that wanted to kill themselves. Blake’s been dealing with this his whole life. He tells them, ‘Dude, look what I can do and I’ve been like this since I was born.’”
Barber is a journalist and a go-getter to the core. He’s also not one to miss an opportunity. It was a chance encounter years ago with actor Eddie Albert on a park bench in Pacific Palisades where Barber, 52, first learned about a small island chain in the South Pacific called Tarawa.
Albert, who since died, had fought in the battle of Tarawa where, along with more than 4,000 Japanese soldiers, nearly 2,000 US Marines lost their lives with many of their remains still laying in unmarked graves. And the Defense Department, Albert said, knew where the bodies were and did nothing to bring them home.
Outraged and inspired, Barber tried to sell the idea as an article, but had no success. So he put it away to work on other things until years later when he met Leon Cooper, who also fought in the battle. It was as if the story called out to him.
Cooper had tried to get the attention of politicians in Washington about Tarawa with no luck either and was frustrated. So he self-financed a documentary, which Barber directed called Return to Tarawa. Narrated by Ed Harris, the film chronicles a trip with Cooper to revisit the battlefield and discover the remains of his fallen countrymen amid a beach littered with trash.
“It was quite a nightmare experience for me and the first time also when I returned. I had a lot of unpleasant memories,” Cooper said from his home in Malibu. “I thought the only way to bring attention to the American public was by producing this film.”
To Barber’s surprise, the film was shortlisted for an Oscar. Today it appears on Netflix, Hulu and Snag Films with more than 1 million documented views. It also spurred action by Congressman Dan Lipinski who launched an investigation that brought home many of the remains, but not quite as many as Cooper and others would like. A follow-up film called Until They are Home covers the progress.
“Steve is a very aggressive guy. He’s a real hustler,” Cooper said. “I credit him with having brought my film to the attention of a lot of people. Otherwise nobody would know anything about it.”
The film also solidified Barber as a force in the documentary film business. Besides Ed Harris, narrators for his films have included Kelsey Grammar and Dan Ackroyd. He said James Gandolfini was prepared to narrate and largely fund an upcoming project of Barber’s before his untimely death. With three more films already in the can, including one project about the father of the so-called balloon boy hoax, Barber is constantly on the move looking for new funders and new angles to tell a story that hopefully in the end moves people to make a change.
“I’m 52 and my heart’s still ticking,” he said. “I’m not going to wait for nothing. I’m just gonna go out there everyday and do it.” WSP
For more on Barber’s work visit Vanilla Fire Productions.