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Gilliam traces his leftward migration back to the day at Liberty he tried to defend creationism on an Internet forum: "I just got eviscerated." So he ignored what he'd been force-fed, investigated and eventually said to himself, "God, what an idiot I've been."
"I was not taught this stuff," he says. "It was amazing once I opened up and learned what the story was."
While at eCompanies, Gilliam continued nurturing his progressive political side.
"I never had the crazy college experience. I started reading and reading, and it showed me all the crazy stuff our president does. And I thought, 'Wait a second. This is important. Will I regret not having taken a stand doing what I could have done when I had the opportunity?'
"Even if it can't make a difference, you have to try. And it turns out you actually can make a difference."
His whole family eventually came over to his side politically, especially when his health worsened. "When something traumatic happens, it can be a wake-up call," he says.
The biggest wake-up call for Gilliam was 9/11. He left as chief technological officer at Business.com, an Internet business search engine, to "do something that was more meaningful." He began attending Democratic Party functions, "but that was just not happening." He moved over to MoveOn.org, attracted by their use of the Internet. Through MoveOn, he met a Hollywood producer who mentioned that Robert Greenwald "was looking for a tech guy. The next day, I was working on Uncovered."
"We'd already looked at 30 or 40 people, and then I was talking with someone who said they'd just met this guy at a MoveOn meet-up who'd be great," Greenwald says. "When Jim walked in—all 6-feet-9 of him—well, I'm 5-feet-6 and a half on a good day, and I have a general policy not to hire anyone taller than me. But when he walked in, that intelligence and commitment was apparent in the first second. I just knew he was somebody I needed to work with."
Asked what Gilliam brings to his Brave New Films company, Greenwald turns the question around: "What hasn't he brought to the table? He is an amazing warrior for truth and progressive values. He's just been a critical part of all of the movies. They wouldn't have happened in the way they happened if he were not working so incredibly hard and smart on the films themselves, the distribution of the films, all of that."
For Uncovered, Gilliam was primarily responsible for Internet research. For Outfoxed, he tracked down old video and continually taped Fox News. The Wal-Mart movie involved finding the "people stories" that personalize the mega-retailer's assorted misdeeds. For the upcoming Iraq for Sale, he's building a distribution network called Brave New Theaters, "The people-powered movie distributor."
Brave New Theaters cuts out theater chains and turns the living rooms of activists into movie houses. Gilliam says the "dirty little secret" about moviemaking is there is no way to make money showing films theatrically, that doing so is now just promotion for subsequent DVD sales, which is where films really make money.
Bastani believes Brave New Theaters has an added benefit: "It makes everyone a stakeholder. Jim understands that people who feel they're part of something become raging fans."
As evidence, he might point to the fact that Gilliam used only the Internet and Brave New Films' database of supporters to raise $350,000 for Brave New Theaters in one recent week.
"He just gets it," Bastani said. "His new model for how to raise money for movies is amazing."
That's not all that amazes him. Bastani and Gilliam were roommates when Jim's health got the best of him again. Killing the cancer is what's killing him now. The radical treatments scarred his lungs, leading to fibrosis. That forced Gilliam to move back in with his father, also named Jim, and stepmother, Maggie. They keep a blog on their son's medical condition. Doctors told him he needs new lungs in September 2005.
"The fact that he continues to do what he's passionate about is astounding," Bastani said. "I don't think there's an alternative for him. What else would he do? He's always doing. He's got an ability to make an impact through what he does. We see a lot of results from the movies he's done.
"It's baffling what he can still do. Sometimes, he can barely talk. His cough is not like a normal cough; he's really gasping for air."
"He's a warrior," Greenwald says in a New York accent that makes it sound like war-yuh. "If I e-mail him at 10 o'clock at night or 7 in the morning or Sunday afternoon, he responds immediately. He's got a great work ethic and a real intellectual curiosity to figure things out. What he's been doing, there are no models, no rules. You need a certain way of looking at things. He's not bound by 'this is the way it's always been done.'"
Jim Gilliam can sound like the slickest Hollywood producer when he seamlessly slides into a sales pitch for organ donations. Simply filling out the DMV form when you renew your driver's license and affixing the donor sticker to your license is apparently not enough. Gilliam urges potential donors to visit shareyourlife.org, join the national registry and make your loved ones aware of your intentions.