Friday, January 31, 2020

"Who Am I To Stop It," a documentary film on isolation, art, and transformation after brain injury directed by Cheryl Green, Cynthia Lopez

Reprint from the BMJ Medical Humanities blog:

If you are interested in showing the film or hosting a screening, contact filmmaker Cheryl Green at New Day Films
Review by Karina Sturm, filmmaker and journalist
Who Am I To Stop It is a feature-length documentary portraying three artists in the US who live with brain injuries by following them through their lives and capturing the social challenges they face due to their disability. The film illustrates how they try to find their way back into a new life using art.
This review is written from the perspective of a disabled journalist who focuses on representing people with disabilities in media, and who has seen too many stereotypical portrayals of that community. Who Am I To Stop It is different in its accurate depiction of an invisible and misunderstood disability.
I watched the three short films that have been excerpted from the full-length documentary, featuring Kris, Brandon, and Dani. The fact that I live with a disability myself was not the primary reason why the films caught my attention; it was because of their engrossing narrative structure. The filmmakers thematized its subjects’ challenges without enforcing artificial emotional responses. This documentary is not about telling a sensational story or a beautiful recovery journey; it focuses on the here and now and shows how people with a disability can find a new identity and a sense of self.
The first story was Kris’s, an artist creating intricate paintings. People don’t realize that she has a brain injury. They see her as “the eccentric artist,” and she often feels misunderstood. “If I didn’t have the art, I would be suicidal.” For Kris, her art isn’t only a job; it is a coping mechanism that helps her to survive in a world filled with people doubting her disability. Kris’s story does not end with a heart-warming resolution like other films do, but with a hard truth that many disabled people have to face: Kris loses her apartment and gets evicted.
The second short film was Brandon’s, who is a singer. He experienced traumatic brain injury after his car was hit by a truck. Brandon made peace with his past and fights hard to regain his independence. Presented in a humorous way that helps the audience empathize with his tragic fate, he talks about the fact that he is not allowed to go anywhere alone until he manages to find the right bus stop, catch the right bus, and then get off the bus at the correct location three times in a row. When he finally managed to complete this task, he joyously says: “It has been magic.”
The third artist was Dani. She is the youngest, who struggles the most to accept her limitations. Following her pain and self-doubts was deeply shattering, because it reminded me of my own journey. She can’t quite find the right way to come to terms with her disability. “If I knew this would’ve been my life, I would’ve asked to die. I hate life,” she says. One crucial aspect of Dani’s story is the fact that her family have a totally different perspective. It’s hard for them to see her unhappy, when they are just glad that she survived the brain injury. In the end, Dani finds her voice by rapping in a place where she fits in: an LGBTQ organization.
The film tone and narrative make one assume that one or both filmmakers are disabled themselves because they know exactly the right questions to ask, and the people in the film feel comfortable to confide in them. The film protagonists were engaging, but without being emotionally manipulative. Moreover, Who Am I To Stop It is highly educational. Right from the beginning of Kris’s story, we see her in a doctor’s office, where she talks about her symptoms. The way Kris describes the effects of her brain injury immediately gave me a sense of what she had to deal with daily as a disabled person. I also appreciated the filmmakers providing closed captions and descriptive audio throughout the film. It is obvious that they had the disability community in mind when they produced those films.
In summary, all short films felt honest and real. They were short enough to keep my attention but long enough to provide the necessary information to understand and relate to its contributors. Who Am I To Stop It is one of a few films that accurately portray disabled people, and this alone makes it incredibly worthwhile.

Watch the trailer here.
Conflict of Interest statement from Karina Sturm:
As I was working on my own documentary film about living with EDS, another disabled media maker put me in touch with Cheryl. We have since formed a friendship discussing everything from Audio Description in film to ableism and the lack of disabled media makers telling our own stories. My review of her films was not a favor to Cheryl, but my honest opinion about Who Am I To Stop It as a fellow filmmaker and journalist.
Who Am I To Stop It is a fiscally-sponsored project of The Hollywood Theatre and is distributed by New Day Films.
Correspondence with the reviewer:

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

"Crip Camp," documentary on a summer camp that inspired disability rights, premieres at Sundance

From Berkeleyside:

The disability rights movement in Berkeley takes center stage on the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival in the film “Crip Camp,” a documentary that traces the infancy of the movement to a revolutionary summer camp tucked away in upstate New York. 
Directed by Bay Area filmmakers James “Jim” LeBrecht, a Berkeley resident, and the Emmy award-winning Nicole Newnham, the film premieres Thursday at the festival in Park City, Utah. It is one of the first films that Barack and Michelle Obama produced for Netflix. 
“Crip Camp,” tells the story of how a summer camp for disabled teenagers helped give birth to an important but sometimes overlooked civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s. 
Before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990, there was no federal law that prohibited discrimination against individuals with disabilities. 
Institutionalization was more common than it is today. But the teenagers who attended Camp Jened, a summer camp for teenagers and adults with disabilities, imagined a brighter future. A group of campers found community and camaraderie during their weeks in upstate New York in the 1970s, and Camp Jened served as an incubator for the disability rights movement. Many of the campers later moved out west to Berkeley, where the struggle for equal rights and representation was already well underway. 
“Berkeley as a city is the home of the disability rights movement so it makes perfect sense that this film would be coming out of the Bay Area,” says Berkeley City Councilwoman Susan Wengraf. 
“Crip Camp” director was a part of the movement 
LeBrecht, the founder of Berkeley Sound Artists, an audio post-production house, and the co-director of “Crip Camp,” was among the group of campers that landed in Berkeley in the 1970s. “Crip Camp” is told from the perspective of LeBrecht, whose long history of activism on the part of the disabled started in high school and carries through to today.
LeBrecht, who declined to talk to Berkeleyside ahead of the movie’s release on Netflix, was born with Spina Bifida, a condition that occurs when the spine and spinal cord don’t form properly and often results in restricted mobility. LeBrecht was born in an era where individuals with disabilities had limited, if no, options in terms of accessible living, workplaces, and transit. When he was a young child, he navigated the stairs of his split-level childhood home by crawling or climbing, he told SFGate. 
But LeBrecht’s parents didn’t want him to live a sheltered life and he worked hard to ensure his opportunities were not limited by his physical disability, he told the newspaper. He became active in the disability rights movement in his teens and helped start the Disabled Students Union at UC San Diego, according to Catapult Film Fund.
Lebrecht worked as Berkeley Repertory Theater’s resident sound designer for 10 years and worked in sound design at the Saul Zaentz Film Center and at Skywalker Ranch. 
LeBrecht has had immense success as a sound designer, with more than 179 film credits on IMDB.
“When I was growing up, people like Jim were institutionalized, they were shut out of society,” says Wengraf. “I’d love to meet Jim’s mother someday. She must be an extraordinary woman. She raised Jim with an enormous amount of self-confidence and the belief that he could do whatever he wanted. That was an extraordinary thing for the time. She was on the cusp of the disability rights movement.” 
LeBrecht is a former colleague of Wengraf’s husband, Academy Award-winning sound designer Mark Berger, and has known the family for many years. Similar to LeBrecht and Camp Jened campers, Wengraf told Berkeleyside that she came to Berkeley in 1969 on a mission to help children with disabilities express themselves through filmmaking and photography. 
“I think film is a powerful medium for telling any good story,” said Wengraf. “Film has the capacity to envelop you in an experience, unlike any other medium. I’m sure [“Crip Camp”] would be a good book but I think film is more effective at telling this kind of story.” 
The history of activism for disability rights in Berkeley 
By the time Wengraf and the activists from Camp Jened arrived in Berkeley in the 1970s, the struggle for equal rights for the disabled had already started. In 1962, Ed Roberts, the University of California Berkeley’s first student with severe physical disabilities, started a protest group called the Rolling Quads, whose activism helped establish the first Disabled Student’s Union on campus back in the 1960s. 
Ten years later, the work of activists such as Roberts, Hale Zuckas, and Jan McEwan Brown led to the opening of the Center for Independent Living, Inc. (CIL) in 1972, an organization dedicated to peer support and helping persons with disabilities lead independent lives. The CIL is still active today and is connected to the Ashby BART station at the Ed Roberts campus. 
Telling the story of the disability rights struggle 
“Crip Camp” might elevate the history of the disability rights movement, which is lesser-known in Berkeley than other protest movements born here. 
The film is included in the first slate of films being produced by Higher Ground Productions, the Obamas’ film company, which is devoted to telling the stories of civil rights pioneers. 
By recognizing a story about the struggle for disability rights alongside stories of other civil rights movements, Netflix and the Obamas are helping bring more awareness to this often overlooked and underrepresented movement, says contributor Sarah Kim in an editorial for Forbes. 
Wengraf expressed similar feelings, saying the support of Michelle and Barack Obama is an enormous honor, noting “…it’s kind of a dream for every documentary filmmaker to be acknowledged in this way and get this kind of boost, it’s phenomenal. This is a dream come true for Jim and everyone else who thinks this is an important story to be told.” 
Wengraf says she has a vision for a museum in Berkeley’s Civic Center that would have a wing devoted to the disability rights movement, alongside other important moments in Berkeley’s history. 
“I think this is a very important story to be told [and] it’s going to be up to us, it’s not necessarily our issue, it’s going to be up to us to bring it to the public realm,” says Wengraf. 
Netflix will be releasing “Crip Camp” in spring 2020.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

"Everything's Gonna Be Okay" explores grief, love, autism, with autistic character played by autistic actor Kayla Cromer

From Teen Vogue:

Freeform's new comedy Everything's Gonna Be Okay is unconventionally hilarious. Set in California, the show explores how three siblings cope with the sudden loss of their father.
Nicolas, played by Australian actor Josh Thomas, steps up to be the father-figure of his two teenage half-sisters: an angsty Geneviene (Maeve Press) and Matilda (Kayla Cromer, pictured), who has autism.
The show screened for an intimate audience at Chicago's Davis Theater on Tuesday and was met with laughter and applause.
What sets the show apart from other family sitcoms is that it bluntly unpacks grief, sex, love, and independence in a darkly humorous way. It also makes history as the first show to ever cast an actor on the spectrum in a lead role. 
"Everyone that's been cast as a character with autism doesn't really have that disability themselves," Kayla, who plays the outspoken but kindhearted Matilda, says. "So how can they expect to act like one of us, when they haven't walked in our shoes?"
Previously a model, Kayla was one of the first actresses to audition for the role and landed it soon after. And while she's thrilled with the opportunity to give nuance to what it's like having autism, she's also well aware that there should be more representation on big and small screens of people with neurological disorders.
"I know there's always going to be people that won't like my performance and [others] will like it," she says. "But in reality, one character with autism can't represent every person with autism — everyone is different. We all have our different quirks. Not all of our brains are alike."
Read more about Cromer here. 
Everything's Gonna be Okay premieres Jan. 16, 2020 on Freeform.