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Hitman to Hero

Shiori Tomatsu

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"Hitman to Hero" logo

"Hitman to Hero" logo (Courtesy of Sarah Bernard)

About a year ago, Clayton parents Sarah Bernard and Barbara Madison went to Nicaragua for mission work, only to encounter the unexpected: a former hitman. Little did they know that this meeting with Oscar Cuarezma would lead them to start a film and change their lives forever.

Madison, a registered nurse and owner of Right at Home, a healthcare agency, went to Nicaragua to conduct workshops for the locals who had been affected by human trafficking. Through this work she met Cuarezma and introduced him to Bernard who was working with schools in the Nejapa village near Managua.

“Every now and then, you meet somebody that really has the ability to change your life,” Madison said. “He had a life that was filled with crime and violence, he had pretty much reached the depths of despair and through transformational experience, he now has a life of love and service. It’s really inspiring and you can’t forget it.”

Cuarezma experienced abusive parents, sexual abuse, and drug and alcohol addiction as a young boy and later on joined the Sandinista Army where he was trained to execute people on a daily basis.

“He was a drug addict at one point, and he decided one day that ‘I’m not going to take drugs anymore,’” Bernard said. “He went through drug withdrawal on his own and that’s really hard to do.”

After stopping drugs, Cuarezma found a program that helped prostitutes and today, he is rescuing women and their children from dangerous brothels and providing them with shelter, education and job training.

“The amount of change that he experienced in his life from you can’t get any worse to you can’t do any better is inspiring,” Bernard said. “I mean not many people in their lifetime can experience that degree of evil and goodness.”

Bernard and Madison decided to film this documentary for many reasons, one of them being that Cuarezma’s story fascinated them.

“Some people will really stand out and people who meet Oscar, not just me, are really inspired by who he is and what he does,” Madison said. “I mean, meeting with him and being with him, spending time with him moved me to want to tell his story because he’s had one life and now he has a completely different life.”

Bernard also believes that Cuarezma’s life story on film will engage other people as much as it engaged her and Madison.

“By taking that and putting it on film for others to learn from, we hope we’ll inspire people to see that their issues are also transformable,” Bernard said.

Bernard and Madison knew they needed to find a director that could capture Cuarezma’s amazing story and they found that in Dan Parris, a St. Louis resident who recently won Best Documentary at the St. Louis Cinema Showcase 2011 for his documentary “Give a Damn?”

“After seeing Dan’s film, we knew he was the right person to bring Oscar’s story to the screen,” Madison said.

Wanting to continue directing films that will make a big difference in the world, Parris decided to get involved in this film production.

“[I wanted to get involved because] Sarah and Barb seemed like two ladies who could really pull this thing off and because Oscar was obviously an intriguing character,” Parris said.

Bernard will be the executive producer for this film, but she also works as a news reporter and interviewer on STL-TV, and is hoping to bring her skill of interviewing along with her.

“One of the things I do as an actress is I do television hosting so I’m sort of the person asking the questions, and I do that right now on TV,” she said. “I hope that I can bring that skill when we’re interviewing people to help them feel comfortable talking to us and I’ll be helping conducting those interviews.”

Madison hopes that the audience will be able to see the character development in Cuarezma throughout the film.

“The challenges he faces today can be heartbreaking and to remain courageous and steadfast in what you’re committed to in the face of no agreement isn’t easy,” Madison said. “It’s a different courage he shows today than he used to. He used to have to be courageous in his violent life as well, but a different kind.”

The film itself will be made on a low budget, and both Bernard and Madison are spending a tremendous amount of time fundraising.

“The budget for this film is about $200 thousand which is low budget for a feature film,” Bernard said. “We are applying for special grants from all over the world, and looking at distribution opportunities and some things like that. The Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis is our fiscal sponsor, which means they administer our funds. They’ve been a huge supporter.”

The process of making this film will be long and Bernard has been planning since last fall.

“It will be about a year of production,” Bernard said. “We’ll start in March and the actual shooting location will probably be three to four weeks, not at the same time, so we’ll have a week that we’ll shoot in Nicaragua then we come back here and we do production work. Then another week there and then we do production work. And we’re going to do some shooting work in California because there’s somebody there that we need to speak with and then if we need one more shoot, we’ll go back to Nicaragua again.”

Bernard hopes that this film will appeal to more than one audience group, including high schoolers and above, as well as those who are interested in independent films and the topic of human trafficking.

“We also want to appeal to those who are interested in certainly making a difference in the world and people who are interested in stories that someone has experienced and huge transformation,” Madison said.

Parris wants the film will impact the viewers, so that the audience will leave with a new perspective about the world around them.

“I want people to be informed about human trafficking and Nicaraguan history, but most of all, be compelled by Oscar’s story to seek out how they can how they can take the heartbreak in their own life and use it as a tool for positive change in this world,” Parris said.

Bernard and Madison, as parents of Clayton High School students, hope that this film will impact the Clayton community as much as it would impact any viewer.

“Clayton is near and dear to our hearts and Sarah and I both live here,” Madison said. “My daughter graduated from Clayton High School, Sarah’s kids go to Clayton High School, actually Sarah and I would say that our interest is in answering the question, which is easier to change the world or yourself? And we’re hoping that the Clayton community will be inspired by this story to make a difference in their way.”

They are both proud for the contributions the Clayton community has given to this film.

“The other thing too is that there will be a lot of people in Clayton involved in this project,” Bernard said. “There’s already been a lot of people in Clayton who have committed financial funds to our project and so we are so excited about that and we are proud. A great portion of this film is being planned right here in Clayton.”

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The student news site of Clayton High School.
Hitman to Hero