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Holiday Tragedy remembered

by Mark Burger

I’ve often joked that my favorite movie of the holidays, along with Die Hard, is the original Black Christmas. But here in North Carolina, specifically in Stokes County, there truly was a black Christmas back in 1929 – the blackest and bleakest ever.

It was on that day that farmer Charlie Lawson murdered his wife, six of their seven children, and finally himself in what remains the single most horrific mass murder in the state’s history.

In the almost 80 years since Charlie Lawson’s rampage, there have been songs and stories written about it, as well as endless theorizing about what made him snap. (There are even those, to this day, who believe Charlie didn’t do it.)

Filmmakers Matt Hodges and Eric Calhoun believe that he did, and last year released their feature documentary A Christmas Family Tragedy, which recounts the incident and explores the circumstances leading up to it, as well as the legacy of the tragedy.

The two filmmakers orchestrated a grassroots movement to promote and distribute the DVD, speaking at bookstores, seminars, county fairs – wherever they thought there might be interest.

Knowing well the fascination surrounding the case, “it was never a question of whether it would sink or swim, because the story’s always done well,” says Hodges. “So, to a degree, we knew it would swim. We didn’t know it was going to be a tsunami!”

Selling it themselves, the DVD of A Christmas Family Tragedy – as well as a CD of the film’s soundtrack – sold through the roof.

(Truth in disclosure: Last year, yours truly rewrote some of the Christmas Family Tragedy press releases when the film was first released… although I’m absolutely certain that my work had nothing to do with the film’s success.)

“We haven’t even counted how many we’ve sold,” Hodges says, pointing out that he and Calhoun have been working on new projects while still touting that one. This year, however, the film scored national distribution through Facets Multimedia.

Now, A Christmas Family Tragedy is readily available from many retailers, as well as from Netflix and Amazon.com – and it’s proving even more successful, and on a much larger scale.

“Netflix has already doubled its original order – twice,” boasts Hodges. Interestingly and ironically enough, he notes, the DVD tends to sell extremely well during the holiday season.

The new DVD release has a brand-new cover and over an hour of bonus features including deleted scenes, previously edited interview segments, and the full church sermon about the Lawson murders.

When A Christmas Family Tragedy was first released last year, the media was filled with stories about Chris Benoit, the professional wrestler who murdered his wife and son before hanging himself. The re-release of the special edition coincides with the recent incident involving Matthew Murray, whose shooting spree in Colorado left four people dead before Murray himself was killed.

These are merely the latest examples of Charlie Lawson’s legacy, Hodges notes ruefully. The Lawson murders “can always be used to remind us what can happen when our priorities get out of order,” he says. “The triggers are almost irrelevant; the emphasis is on the gun itself. People are basically packing the same psychological heat, and if we can recognize those dangers signs and prevent something like this from ever happening again… well, that means more to be than any best director award.”

Proceeds from the DVD sales are being used to fund a battered women’s shelter in Stokes County, and both Hodges and Calhoun have heard from people who have seen the movie and who have been inspired to make a deliberate decision to change their lives – whether to walk away from an abusive relationship or to seek help for someone they know is suffering in an abusive relationship.

Although domestic abuse doesn’t always reach the terrifying level of a Charlie Lawson or a Chris Benoit, it remains a tragic part of our culture – albeit, Hodges emphasizes, a preventable one. “That’s the message,” he says. “That’s what we wanted to say with the film. You can break the circle of violence before it’s too late.”

As the founders of Break of Dawn Productions, headquartered right here in Winston-Salem, Hodges and Calhoun are the very definition of do-it-yourself, 21st-century filmmakers.

“Whether it’s going to a theater, going on the internet, ordering it from Netflix or watching it on your iPhone, we want to put our films in the hands of the people, whatever the source,” Hodges says. “We want to be everywhere. The important thing is for our films to be seen, not how they’re seen.”

Next up for Hodges and Calhoun is a sports-related project that allowed Hodges to indulge his boyhood love for auto racing and stunt driving – but don’t confuse it with “Jackass.” It may be in a lighter vein than Christmas Family Tragedy but Hodges says it’ll still pack a punch.

“It’s hard-hitting – and I mean it! It’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on.”

The project was in part inspired by one of Hodges’ childhood idols, the legendary motorcyclist Evel Knievel, who died last month.

“God speed you, Star-Spangled Daredevil,” says Hodges. “When I was a kid, I so looked up to Evel Knievel. He looked like the Flying Elvis! He was a human superhero.”

Hodges and Calhoun are also working on a project about the USS Liberty, the US warship that was mysteriously (and, apparently, mistakenly) attacked by Israeli forces while observing the Six-Day War between Israel and several of the Arab states surrounding it. More than 30 US servicemen were killed as a result of this “mistake.”

“It’s a story that, quite simply, hasn’t been told,” says Hodges, who demurs further comment at this time, “but we’ll talk about it later,” he promises.

As for the sustained success of A Christmas Family Tragedy, Hodges confirms that more material will be added to the DVD. “We’ll be doing updates every year for years to come,” he says. “[The story] just won’t die, and it never will.”

For more information about A Christmas Family Tragedy and Break of Dawn Productions, see bodproductions.com.

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