Filmmaker Jon Matthews believes we’re all not that far from a terrible fall.
It could happen to anyone, he says. The mistake is thinking it could happen to someone else.
“Surviving Cliffside,” which headlines a series of free shows Saturday night during the West Virginia International Film Festival at the Capitol Center Theater, is Matthews’ unvarnished look into the life of a Kanawha County family struggling through poverty, illness and drug addiction — themes that are all too common in places like West Virginia.
Superficially, “Surviving Cliffside” looks like some of the reality programs on television, an unfortunate cross between, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and “Toddlers and Tiaras.”
In the film, Matthews follows his rough-around-the edges cousin E.J. Huffman, and takes a peek into his life, which includes wife Brandi and their two, young daughters.
“I guess you could say you see us at a very tough part in our lives,” Huffman said.
They live on very limited means in a rough-looking, trash-strewn, crime-ridden neighborhood.
Huffman is haunted by a series of tragedies. He battles depression and his own addiction, but tries to provide for his family, which includes openly stealing from a local chain store.
Matthews defended his cousin and his film by pointing out that as unpleasant as “Surviving Cliffside” gets, you can’t say it’s exploitive or dishonest.
“A lot of outsiders come in to shoot what is basically referred to as poverty porn,” Matthews said. “They don’t take poverty seriously. They invite people to come look at the freak show. They make shows about folks others can look at and think their lives are so much better.”
“Come look at the poor West Virginians,” he said mockingly, and then added, “The problem with a lot of these films and shows is they take a two-dimensional look and go for the cheap laugh, the cheap stunt. They go for outrageousness without ever going to the heart of the character.”
Matthews said he was trying to get at the complexity of his cousin’s character: a man who is very flawed but also deeply loves his family and is willing to do almost anything to support them, including steal.
Yet, the director doesn’t promise the film is completely objective.
“I grew up with E.J.,” Matthews said. “He was like my little brother. I would baby-sit him. We’d go out in the woods. I’d take him to the water park or whatever.”
After high school, Matthews and his cousin went along different paths.
Matthews went on to college and then law school before deciding to quit and go to film school in 2009.
His cousin went down a darker road that veered into drug use, madness and despair.
Almost 10 years ago, Huffman had three close friends commit suicide in the span of a couple of months.
He was in the room when at least one of those friends put a bullet in his head.
“I don’t know how you process something like that,” Matthews said.
And then, a lot of his cousin’s struggles came from a medical emergency a few years ago, Matthews said.
As a toddler, Huffman’s daughter Makala was diagnosed with leukemia.
Keeping up with her treatments and working to get her well took its toll on the family. Huffman had trouble keeping a job, and the stress exacerbated Huffman’s drug problem.
Matthews said he got involved with filming the family shortly after Makala finished chemotherapy, as the family was trying to find their way to back to a normal life. Makala had become active in the junior pageant circuit.
“I’d heard some about what was going on when with them,” Matthews said. “So, I’d really just started film school and during Christmas in 2009, I came home and asked them about doing a documentary about them.”
Huffman laughed. “I didn’t think we were that interesting.”
They were more interesting than even Matthews originally thought, and he convinced them their story was meaningful, even it didn’t necessarily always show them in a positive light.
It wasn’t easy.
Matthews said parts of the film shoot were hard for him to be at.
“The cemetery scene was almost impossible for me,” he said.
At times, Huffman said sometimes he felt like having a camera pointed at him was obtrusive and Matthews had to struggle with his own urges to turn away.
“I had to ask E.J., ‘Is this OK?’ and he’d tell me, ‘Just keep it real, just keep it true.”
Despite the “warts and all” approach to the documentary, Matthews said he didn’t make “Surviving Cliffside” to condemn Huffman.
“This is my family,” he said. “This is where I’m from. These are people I love.”
Huffman said he sees that, too, though he’s not entirely sure what to make of it all.
“It’s weird to have your life out there,” Huffman said. “It’s a pretty vulnerable feeling to have your secrets out there for the world to see, but I hoped some good would come out of it — and a lot of it has, even with how many people have seen it so far.”
Cliffside has quieted down a lot. There isn’t as much crime or drugs around. Huffman said some of the people who made the environment what it was have moved on. Some left. Others went to jail.
Huffman and his family are much better now.
“We’re doing great,” he said. “We’re far from where we were back then. I’ve got a handle on my addiction problem, have pretty much kicked the Tab and coming up I’ll have been clean for 15 months.”
His daughter’s health is still good.
“She’s got such a huge appetite,” Huffman joked.
And the family is still together, though he admitted that allowing his cousin to tell his story hasn’t come without some additional scrutiny.
He said, “We have had some trouble with social workers, but they came and talk to us and saw everything was fine.”
In some ways, a lot of it is ancient history. Matthews began filming in 2009 and wrapped up about two years ago.
These days Matthews is in Los Angeles, hustling to get work in television and film.
The filmmaker said, “I’m working on a web series that’s kind of like ‘Boyz in the Hood,’ but with ex-latino gang members. I’m also shooting a spec commercial for an agency. I’ve never directed a commercial. So, I’m doing kind of a retro Ford truck commercial with an old truck and everything.”
Huffman, meanwhile, said he’s working and doing a bit of writing.
“I’m working on a couple of books, actually,” he said. “One is fiction and one is about Cliffside. I’ve been staying busy.”
The writing is good therapy for him, he said.
As far as the film itself, Huffman said that he and his wife had seen “Surviving Cliffside.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen it. I didn’t want to watch it, but Brandi and I have seen the whole thing. I won’t let the girls watch it. Maybe when they’re older.”
Reach Bill Lynch