At the center of everyone’s life are experiences which shape our world view and the manner in which we approach life itself. Written by Joshua Peacock.
Stickers seem pretty innocuous; small tokens of words, pictures, or doodles that get planted everywhere and anywhere that will hold an adhesive. But for one artist, a sticker was never just a sticker, but a movement to rediscovering life, the beauty of rebirth, and that “Happy” was a message that the whole world could benefit from.
For Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman, the tragic loss of his partner shaped not only his world view, but his art. Through his Happy Campaign, a viral, guerrilla campaign of yellow robots, he has had an impact on people on a global level, and it is that level of success that “HAPPY: a small film with a big smile,” celebrates. Showing this week at the 19th Annual Savannah Film Festival presented by SCAD, “Happy” is Zimmerman’s journey bringing more optimism into the world.
It was during the 2012 election cycle that Zimmerman, a 1994 graduate of SCAD, decided that he wanted to do something to combat the animosity surrounding the often heated political arena. With many years of experience as a graphic designer, he set out with a simple poster of a smiling robot and the word “happy.” He left the work unsigned, plastered it all over town during the night, and soon, the posters began disappearing and re-appearing on social media. So he made more.
“If there was one thing I could advertise or one thing I could use my powers for good, what would it be?” Zimmerman said of the beginning of the Happy Campaign. “If I could make someone smile—so I thought ‘Happy.’ It’s so simple.”
The innocuous gesture spread like wildfire. He began to gather a social media following and then the stickers and pins he was making started showing up not only around the United States, but internationally.
“It’s grown organically,” Zimmerman comments. “I never set out to get these stickers out all over the world. The positivity behind it has really been infectious.”
The Next Step
During his skyrocket journey into iconography fame, Leonard was invited to conduct a Tedx talk for the Augusta chapter in 2014 on his Happy Campaign. Being an introvert, it was a nerve-racking, daring thing to accept an opportunity to stand in front of lots of people and talk about his art. But little did he know, but it would be the beginning of a wild ride.
The film’s director and producer, Michael Patrick McKinley, is not a documentary filmmaker. He is an interior designer, who had some film experience. But Michael was so moved by Leonard’s Tedx talk, he committed himself to making the film.
“I woke up in the middle of the night and had him on my mind and said, someone should make a film about this guy,” Michael remembers. “I literally, heard my inner voice say, ‘You should make this film.’ Every hair on my body stood up on end. I knew the only reason it wouldn’t happen is if Leonard said no.”
It took Leonard a month, but he eventually said yes. Reluctant to share his story in such painful detail, he initially wanted to have the film made without him, but Michael was adamant he be a part of it.
“When I was approached (to do the film) my initial response was no,” Zimmerman says with his infectious laugh. “Because it’s extremely personal. I feel I am an introvert. Because I’ve used my art as therapy, I’ve gone from introvert to extrovert in a weird way.”
The Social Aspect
Several aspects of the film owe there existence to social media, including putting together the parts of the production that have made the film what it is.
First, Leonard and Michael found each other on Instagram. Then, Savannah photographer and singer/songwriter Jon Waits, who’s original song “HAPPY in the Love” is the films theme song, found Leonard through his social accounts as well. Later, after cementing details and storyboards, Michael took to GoFundMe, a crowd sourcing website, to raise funds for the film–which is still an active account to continue spreading the gospel of “Happy.”
Jon, who also appears in the film, found Leonard on Instagram and was immediately drawn to his message. Ultimately, the cyber introduction turned into real meetings, and the two became friends. Having overcome equally difficult stages in his personal life, Jon connected with Leonard’s story, and the two found common ground.
“The whole “Happy” thing hit a place in me, because it’s not about glossing over the hard times, the sad times and all of that, it’s more or less saying we have a choice,” Jon explains. “We have choice if we want to stay stuck in this position of all the hard and sad stuff. I’ve had a lot of loss of life and loss of sanity. It really struck a chord with me.”
Art Imitates Love
The documentary is, like life can be, an ebb and flow of emotions, showcasing both the beauty and hardship inherent to everyone’s existence, but it does an important thing: it resonants on a human level. Despite the depths of his loneliness and loss, Leonard has battled his way out of depression through an outlet of infectious positivity with his vibrant artwork, which is a feature Michael rightly captures in the film.
At the center of the documentary is a love story of two men, but this film intentionally circumnavigates the somewhat heavy political trappings of the subject matter by focusing on the normality of such a relationship, and not allowing it to dictate the ethos of the film, but merely exist. It is more a film about dealing with loss and the overwhelming power of positivity.
“For me, this was never an LGBT story,” Michael expresses. “This was a love story. It was story about grieving. It was about overcoming and using art and the power of sharing our stories. Leonard has had an incredible influence on people by this positive influence.”
“I hope the general takeaway is that all of us are on this planet together, spinning around, so let’s make it the best trip it can be,” Leonard adds. “That’s the overall arc that shows up in the movie. Especially, when you see the love story in there.”
To learn more about the film, click here.