Transformation of any kind requires not confidence, but commitment. Anyone who’s observed small children as their minds develop will tell you that it’s a miracle that the majority of us survive into adulthood given the commitment to explore one’s surroundings. The thought doesn’t arrive as “I want to, but I can’t” or “I’m curious, but I shouldn’t,” it’s merely “what’s this?” or “how do I get there?.” Over time, through experience, through culture and community, younglings grow up with a different set of ideas than they had while tiny, often losing the commitment to exploration without fear or doubt. This new way of thinking requires transformation to remove, to shed, to break through in order to engage with the world in the fullest way possible. This is just one piece of the thinking that goes into the Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy (CATTA), a program designed by founder/head instructor Shärath Jason Wilson to reframe lived experience through martial arts and emotional regulation experiences. Director Laura Checkoway (Edith+Eddie) sets The Cave of Adullam across the span of a few months in 2019 and introduces audiences to Shärath Jason, Nägyid Chris Norris, Jason’s second-in-command, and the students of The Cave, four of whom we get to know rather intimately. Theirs is a story of the present being perpetually intertwined with the past and the importance of cultivating the tools to transform their narrative into the best possible version.
One doesn’t grow up without some form of trauma. It’s just how life is. How one proceeds to deal (or not deal) with their trauma, however, does make a big difference in how one engages with the world. Not everyone is given the same kind of opportunity to make changes, to set forward on a new path, and, because of this, a cycle is formed, doomed to be repeated on future generations over and over. Checkoway’s Cave sees a way out of the cycle by way of Shärath Jason’s program and offers proof of its success through the stories of young men Tamarkus, Gabe, Daniel, and Kevin, each at differing stages of development, each with unique obstacles to overcome, each at a point in their lives where they must make a deciding choice that will shape their futures. This sounds incredibly heavy and, frankly, all of Cave is, but it’s presented in a way that never loses sight of the hope Shärath Jason and his program offer. Checkoway accomplishes this through Greg Harriott (Leher – The Wave of Empowerment) and Mike Doyle’s cinematography which captures life in Detroit for each of the subjects exactly as it looks. There’re no filters or trick lighting to imply tone or emotion, there is just each home, each individual, presented as they are. This gives Cave the sense of equity that is implied to be missing in the subjects’ lives, making it clear that none of the subjects, the boys or Shärath Jason, are above or below another. Similarly, Christopher McGlynn’s (Tokyo 2020: Games of the XXXII Olympiad) editing maintains a constant rhythm, creating an ebb and flow so that the audience isn’t overtaken by any one story at a time. This allows the audience to process what’s going on as each story is interwoven into the other. This is how Checkoway centers The Cave itself, by making it the place through which each boy travels as they go to their respective homes and schools. By way of this, Checkoway is able to reaffirm Shärath Jason’s work as significant to their respective lives. Given how often Detroit is depicted in entertainment or is discussed in the news as a place lead by crime, through the cinematography and editing, Checkoway is able to get through all the presumption and show the pulsing hope which still resides in the city and its people.
What’s particularly fascinating is the way Checkoway doesn’t present an argument for or against Shärath Jason’s work in The Cave. The approach, for the unaware, is a mixture of scripture and martial arts as a means of strengthening the mind and body. The first reaction to this might be that The Cave is little more than a factory for religious warriors, but Checkoway presents Shärath Jason and Nägyid Chris not as religious warriors or zealots, but as modern and secular therapists who seek to create peace through balance of the mind and body in order to shed pain. For a session at The Cave, this may include learning how to throw someone, defending from a knife attack, or engaging in various strength-training exercises. But it may also include Shärath Jason or Nägyid Chris unfolding a banner with high-intensity feeling words like “excited,” “tired,” or “overstimulated,” and having each student create a sentence with these words describing how they feel in that moment. This exercise, along with others, implies that The Cave is a space of emotional freedom, unhindered by previous concepts of masculinity, so that the students are free to express how they feel without judgment. In fact, it’s through the encouragement of their emotions that each of the four Checkoway focuses on comes to confront things they may subconsciously agonize over. A different director might seek to weaponized The Cave, to twist what it does versus showing it as-is, and, by avoiding heavy bias, Checkoway is able to astound and inspire audiences by highlighting a new way to process and move on from trauma.
For the uninformed, the name of the organization, The Cave of Adullam, is a Biblical reference, referring to the place where David and his followers hid from King Saul. It’s a term that’s come to be used when discussing someone or a small group of people with high ethical or moral standards who may return from hiding to claim victory. Though not a lot of time is spent explaining this specifically, Checkoway presents this interpretation successfully through the stories of the four young men. Each are challenged emotionally in unique ways, battling social and personal demons with only the support of their immediate families to help overcome them. This is where the editing is at its strongest as Checkoway moves from one subject to another for brief periods so that no story overshadows another, while intertwining them. For one, it means coming to terms with their estranged mother coming back into their lives while pregnant; forced to consider why they weren’t worth sticking around for. For another, it’s the recent loss of their father and the internal perception that they are now responsible for their older sisters. For yet another, it’s communicating with the father they’ve never met due to the father’s nearly two-decades-long incarceration. At no point does one get the sense that Checkoway is fabricating false drama; instead, she’s allowing the truth of these young men to be the driving factor for the documentary.
But there is another interpretation that speaks to a wider issue, one which Checkoway doesn’t shy from covering either through the young men or Shärath Jason: The Cave offers a chance to battle against the systemic racism that seeks any reason to put a bullet in their bodies or to toss them in prison. As shown by Checkoway, The Cave of Adullam is a place where individuals of high valor exist, where they gather in support of each other so that they may go out into the world and take it back. With this in mind, Shärath Jason’s teachings are the way, not because he works with them on faith or self-defense, but because a young man who is aware of his emotions and can, thus, self-regulate, is a young man who grows into a free adult — free from the trauma of their youth, free to have children of their own that may just have less trauma than the generation before. Sometimes this is stated overtly by Shärath Jason, but, more often, Checkoway captures testimonials from the subjects as they discuss their childhoods and the lives of their parents and grandparents. At a time when many parents are troubled at the idea of taking their kids to school for fear of a mass shooting event, these kids, some barely over 10, have known for too long that merely being Black can be a death sentence. By not shying away from this, Checkoway creates an opportunity to extend Shärath Jason’s message outward from The Cave and into the audience. You want to take things back, truly? You do so by addressing the pain that keeps them down. To that, though, Shärath Jason expects commitment and pushes each of his students, whether they’re the focus of the doc or not, to be their best versions. This is an aspect Checkoway doesn’t rush to, allowing the stories she’s capturing to unfold without influence (as much as one can when documenting real life), so that the full weight of her film and Shärath Jason’s work hit you with enough time to process before getting to the end of Tamarkus, Gabe, Daniel, and Kevin’s in-film journey.
Running at 94 minutes, The Cave of Adullam could’ve gone longer and it would’ve only made the experience that much more rewarding. Smartly, Checkoway puts the organization and children first before we learn anything about Shärath Jason, his mission, and future plans to move into a new facility. What we do learn about Shärath Jason is minimal, but enough to understand why he leads with his heart and ears, not his fists and why he chooses a combined path of mastery of emotions, mind, and body as the means to end generational trauma in order to create the opportunity for lasting progress. We are the arbiters of our own future. Shärath Jason just provides a path that each of his students must choose to walk. The way Checkoway captures Shärath Jason’s work, one can’t help but be filled with hope and promise at all Tamarkus, Gabe, Daniel, Kevin, and the rest of The Cave can achieve. The old way leads to fear, pain, and suffering. The new way leads to balance and prosperity. We only need to recognize our own commitment to make it real.
Screening during the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official The Cave of Adullam Tribeca film page or The Cave of Adullam Transformational Training Academy website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.