Filmmakers to document life of David Lewis

Linda Mills and partner interview 120 people in quest to preserve details of slain community leader's life

Filmmaker Linda Mills was barreling down the freeway on her way to southern California last Thursday, choking back tears.

She is on a marathon journey to record every scrap of remembrance about David Lewis, her longtime friend and the East Palo Alto community leader who was slain June 9 in a parking garage at Hillsdale Shopping Center.

As her car's GPS factually blurted mileage markers and directions, Mills struggled for words to describe the day she learned Lewis was killed by a single gun shot to the back during an altercation. San Mateo police say it was a targeted homicide.

"I said, 'That's out of the question. It's not possible,'" Mills, a New York University senior vice provost, recalled.

Just days after his death, as his memorial service was being planned, Mills set out to make good on a promise she once made to Lewis -- to get a movie made about his life and work, she said.

She and her filming partner, R.J. McHatton, have so far interviewed 120 people for the documentary, work that is continuing this week in East Palo Alto.

Lewis, a former drug addict and convicted felon, became an internationally known figure due to his work to reform public policy on drug abuse, incarceration and addiction and to help afflicted individuals end their addictions.

Much of his work was centered in East Palo Alto and the drug-rehabilitation center Free At Last. But Lewis' seminal work also served as a model for new national and international approaches to other social issues, including parolee reentry programs and domestic violence. Mills thinks a film about his life and work will have appeal because the concepts of his work aren't insular -- Lewis sought ways to apply the concepts to national and global issues.

Mills met Lewis in 1993. She was senior program officer at New York-based Echoing Green, a nonprofit philanthropic organization that became one of the earliest funders of Free At Last.

"Within three minutes I knew we had somebody incredibly special. He has the ability to change people and systems, whether it was drugs, HIV or prison," she said.

She encouraged the early funding of Free At Last. In 1995, she nominated Lewis for the California Peace Prize, which he received. She also became a board member of Free At Last.

But Mills' relationship was not just that of an admiring observer.

Lewis was "one of a very small number of people that I really shared my inner life with. He could listen and mirror back to you in a new way and you could have a set of solutions," she said.

Lewis was a strong influence on her creative and scholarly work, she said. She has set up "restorative justice" programs for domestic-violence offenders, including one in Nogales, Ariz., that bring in the family and the community to help change a batterer's cycle of violence.

"For the last 15 years, my work on domestic violence has taken a different stance. I believe we need treatment programs that address the whole family. It's very much like David's work at Free At Last," she said.

Lewis believed that parolees and people with addiction stand a better chance of staying clean when returned to their community. Free At Last offers clients help with counseling, housing, job training and opportunities to work and volunteer in the community.

Only 20 percent of parolees have returned to prison in the three years since the inception of East Palo Alto's Parolee Reentry Program, compared to 70 percent for the state-run program, according to East Palo Alto police Chief Ronald Davis.

Mills previously made the film "Auf Wiedersehen, 'Til We Meet Again,'" about her journey to Vienna, Austria with her son, mother and aunt to revisit where the sisters fled in 1939. The film has appeared in a number of film festivals nationwide.

Getting a film made about Lewis' genius hasn't been easy, said Mills, who has also made a movie about her family.

Some years ago, she and producers tried to sell a treatment for a film on Lewis to television and other executives, but it was rejected. The lack of interest in Lewis' story was "shocking, surprising," she said.

"For whatever reason, his redemption and the transformative nature of his life was not nearly as crystallized as it was after his death."

She is currently paying for the Lewis film out of pocket but is seeking outside funding -- so long as it doesn't take away from programs Lewis supported, she said.

So far, the people she and McHatton have interviewed have helped define Lewis' significance, she said.

"The most stunning dimension about the movie was his ability to talk across race, ethnic," economic and educational boundaries, she said. Lewis was as comfortable talking to luminaries such as former President Bill Clinton and veteran journalist Bill Moyers as he was searching the bushes for heroin addicts next to the Bayshore Freeway, she said.

Police have yet to name a suspect in Lewis' death. Some people Mills interviewed are feeling frustrated; others say it is a complicated investigation. Lewis would encourage people not to lose hope, Mills said.

Catching the shooter will raise more questions, she predicted.

"What do we do with whoever did it? It's very complicated when you view it through David's (life work)," she said. "David would say, 'We need to get back to the work' and 'Would you stop it, already?'"

Mills and McHatton are in the Bay Area this week and are asking anyone with footage of Lewis to contact them at or 212-998-2306.

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Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 17, 2010 at 10:28 pm

I'm very glad to read this. This is one of the only bright spots surrounding his homicide. I hope the film is completed & released - I'd love to see it.

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Cancilla, Belmont
a resident of another community
on Aug 18, 2010 at 12:00 pm

I knew David Lewis for many years. He was a great man, always ready to help a friend, or anyone else for that matter. David served the residents of San Mateo County well, always giving of himself, not really asking for anything in return. His basic goal was to help people to stay out of trouble, be drug free and live healthy. He worked with parolees, drug addicts, and HIV/AIDS folks. When David walked into a room, people took notice. He had that special something about him, besides being an empressively large fellow, that made people pay attention to what he was saying. David will be missed by all that he helped many for years to come. I just hope that our local law enforcement community will be able to bring the person(s)who murdered him to justice.

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