Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sundance filmmaker profile: James Redford’s ‘D-Word’ cracks the code of dyslexia

From The Salt Lake City Tribune in Utah:

James Redford, director of the HBO documentary “Mann vs. Ford,” didn’t have to cultivate an interest in dyslexia for his latest effort, “The D Word.” His son Dylan (pictured) was diagnosed with the learning disability in fourth grade.

Still, that didn’t leave Redford off the hook when it came to research. In a process that took two years to completion, the documentary project originally slated for a 10-minute short grew into something much larger. That’s because, as Redford explains, dyslexia as a condition is far larger and more complicated than many people understand.

An estimated one in five children receive the diagnosis. Most crucial is knowing that dyslexics often have talents that dwarf their disadvantages. As evidence, Redford interviews Virgin Group’s founder Richard Branson and California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, among others. The film has lots of personal touches, too, including his own son Dylan, now 20 and attending Middlebury College.

When you set out to find famous subjects for this film, who were you most surprised to learn was diagnosed with dyslexia?

Probably Charles Schwab. I had a predisposed notion, even though my son had dyslexia, about the financial world and the kind of skills it takes to be successful there. The eye-opener to me in general is that the core to doing anything well is creativity. Thinking originally is the key to anything, whether you’re looking at building a better airline, or founding a financial company.

Aside from learning to read and write, what is the first, most important challenge families with dyslexic children face?

The elementary school years are so important to informing self-esteem. A learning disability can pull children back right at the time they’re forming perceptions of themselves in the world. That just dominates your life as a parent. But it’s important to realize that the child also has gifts. As thinking becomes more important in overall success, you realize there are advantages to having a brain that works differently. Dyslexia is a challenge you wouldn’t wish on anyone, but it does have gifts. That’s a story that hasn’t been told. And that’s what gravitates all filmmakers: Stories that haven’t been told, but that need to be told.

What was most difficult about making this film?

The biggest challenge is how to keep the science involved from boring the audience. The answer was animation that could distill the science in a style that would be engaging and clear. It took a long, long, long time trying to find that artist. I spent hours going to animation festivals, looking for animation online. I spent my life on YouTube. Then it came to me by surprised at an exhibit in San Francisco. The animation team was French, Myrzk and Moriceau. I’ve never met them. I’ve never actually talked to them. I just sent them the film, they produced the art, and it was all exchanged and uploaded through computer files. The fact that the animation team, even from afar, understood it so well shows just how much dyslexia transcends all cultures.

What do you hope parents and kids take away from this film?

For kids, that the challenge of learning to read is not the end of academic potential. They shouldn’t be ashamed about their spelling or reading skills, because when they get into high school other talents will rise to the surface. For parents? Be patient. Just because it may be hard in second grade for your child, that doesn’t mean it will always be hard for your child life. As children get older the ways they learn to cope and adjust will help them later on. Learning is a process. It’s the end-goal of effective and critical thinking that you want to get to. We’re so comparative as Americans. We assess ourselves according to the norms that exist. I hope more people will embrace not being in the norm. It’s not such a terrible thing in the long-run