Special ReportThe New Illinois
By Brianna Kelly
Posted: Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014
Devon Edwards wears a sentimental smile as he browses displays of military artifacts, recounting stories of his 17 years of service as he looks at uniforms, medals, foreign currency and supplies, including an MRE package of vegetable lasagna, the thing he’s most excited to see after several years of retirement. Along the way, he introduces himself to other veterans and Columbia College Chicago alumni who have gathered at for a Veterans Day celebration to share their experiences in the military and the arts.
“I loved the structure, I loved the camaraderie, I loved what it represented, but I think the most important thing for me was the stability,” Edwards said. “I knew my environment and I knew who my enemy was.”
For all of the adversity he has overcome in his 40 years, he maintains an infectiously positive attitude despite all of the terrible cards life has dealt him. Now, his greatest aspiration is to share his story with others and hopefully inspire them to never lose faith.
While Edwards was on his final deployment in Kosovo conducting search and seizure missions in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, his longstanding interest in film began to flourish.
It all started on a day when he and his comrades decided to blow off some steam by seeing how much air the humvee they were driving in could get. He filmed the joyride from the passenger’s seat with an 8mm camcorder. It was such a hit that he began documenting day-to-day operations and patrols from then on. Edwards and some of his fellow soldiers even began their own version of MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” to show the ingenious upgrades the locals made to their vehicles. Though he enjoyed shooting video and was encouraged to pursue it, he didn’t give it much thought until he received news that would forever turn his life upside down.
After serving three years in the Navy, 13 years in the Army, and one year in the Air Force, Edwards was medically discharged from the military, against his wishes, because he was diagnosed with lupus and stage four kidney disease. The career that he loved and had literally dedicated half of his life to came to an abrupt end, leaving him downtrodden with the feeling that his life had lost its purpose.
“When […] soldiers get sick, they send [them] to their wife and they’re just done with them and they don’t let them back in,” said Dawn Edwards, Devon’s high school sweetheart and wife of 22 years. “They’d just rather pay them to stay out for the rest of their lives and I think that is so cruel.”
Once his doctors determined how severe his condition was, they initially estimated that he could die within 24 hours. While Edwards was lying in what he thought was his deathbed, he contemplated what he had accomplished in his life and realized his biggest regret was not going to college. When he survived the night, the doctors extended his life expectancy to a maximum of five years. In an epiphanic moment, he decided he wanted to study film so he could make a movie about his life.
“I was racing against the clock,” Edwards said. “The idea was to go to film school, hurry up and graduate, shoot the film, and I was supposed to have died after I shot the film, but nobody was going to see it until after I died.”
But, he was in no shape to attend school immediately. He was so sick that he had to live in the hospital for a year and complete dialysis. After he was released, he continued to battle with the illness at home and began a preventative chemotherapy treatment in 2008, which he continued for nearly five years.
Shortly after Devon’s health began to improve, his wife and daughter were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The five members of the Edwards family had to rely on each other to get through several difficult years that were plagued by severe illness.
“Life owes you nothing, but you owe it to yourself to live the best possible life that you can. And I said, ‘That’s what I’m going to do,’” Edwards said. “I was like, ‘Yo, I’m about to beat the crap out of this lupus and kidney disease and I’m about to make some freakin’ films.’”
In the spring of 2009, he utilized his vocational rehabilitation benefit from the military so he could go to Columbia College Chicago and pursue his B.A. in film and video. He was finally able to focus his attention on something that he was passionate about. Most importantly, filmmaking gave his life a new purpose.
“I was really happy for him because even though they told him that he would die in those five years, I did want to see him continue with a drive to live in spite of what they said,” Dawn Edwards said.
Devon was determined to receive his degree as quickly as possible. At one point, he went on academic probation so he could take eight classes in a semester. He ultimately was able to graduate in just two years.
“I said, ‘This is too easy,’” he said with a laugh. “Try deploying, digging a fox hole, kicking in doors, going down range. This is cake.”
Edwards secured an opportunity to volunteer at Sundance Film Festival and experience the film industry firsthand. It caused him to realize he still had so much more to learn, so he applied for admission to DePaul University while he was still in Utah.
“Sundance kind of gave me that inspiration because […] I was thinking [a film’s process] was almost supposed to happen over night,” he said. “So now I volunteer for anything and everything film-related.”
Edwards has some innate abilities that have and will continue to help him go far in the film industry, including what he lovingly refers to as “the gift of gab,” a la networking and persistence. He met his mentor Joel Kapity, who heads his own film company called Dreams on Screen, at a gospel concert in Chicago. Edwards approached him because he had a camera and asked what he was doing. Before the night was over, Kapity offered him an opportunity to be an assistant editor on his upcoming film.
“Every production I have, I always call Devon because I always want him to be on set,” Kapity said. “He sees things that other people don’t see. He notices things that others don’t. He’s very perceptive, he’s very diligent, [...] he’s very passionate about what he does and I respect that about him.”
The people Edwards has worked with, both in front of and behind the camera admire him equally on professional and personal levels.
“He’s already known by many people as a great filmmaker, but I think [in the future] everyone is going to know his name and everyone is going to know who he is and what he’s done, and everybody is going to want to work with him,” Kapity said.
Ashtar, a local multi-talented entertainer who prefers to be called only by her first name, like Beyonce, thinks Devon is one of the most talented videographers she’s ever worked with and considers him to be her mentor.
“It taught me so much because when you work with a quality professional like Devon, everything is in order, she said. “He’s got a logical way of approaching things. He’s got an educated way of approaching things.”
Though he’s only worked with her on one music video, the first he had ever shot, she’s eager to work with him again in the future.
“It was the most successful project I’ve released thus far. I really thank him for that project and every time I look back, there’s so much nostalgia,” Ashtar said. “It was something that I truly really keep in my heart, that moment was life-changing. For real, I mean that, it was life-changing.”
Edwards, who created his own company called Inspire-Films, has been gaining a lot more exposure within the past year, including working on the set of some major projects, like “Transformers 3” and “Boss.” He was also recently named “Chicago Filmmaker of the Year” by RAW, an international collective of independent artists.
Now it’s been seven years since doctors told him his life would be cut short and he doesn’t plan on slowing down anytime soon.
“I don’t even feel like I’ve began to tap into the [full] potential I have,” he said. “I’m just scratching the surface.”
This coming June, Edwards will graduate with a master’s in cinema production and enter the world of film full-time.
“I think what Devon is supposed to do is tell stories that others can’t tell themselves,” Dawn Edwards said. “Stories that will touch people’s lives, and their hearts, and their minds, and their spirits.”
Devon, who is currently in remission, has yet to begin working on the film about his life. But, now he doesn’t feel the need to rush it since he’s nowhere near his expiration date quite yet.
As Edwards says, “Success is not a destination, it’s a journey.”
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