By: David Sickels
GRANGER TOWNSHIP – It’s rare to see people who were born with developmental disabilities such as Down syndrome, Asperger syndrome or autism in the media. On March 16, though, the SHC/Arc of Medina County helped to break that barrier by inviting the Sprout Touring Film Festival to show its films in two separate screenings at the Highland High School auditorium.
Anthony Di Salvo, who is the founder and executive director of the New York City-based nonprofit “Sprout,” aims to challenge the opportunities that developmentally challenged people have in film, as well as how they should be portrayed.
“These films are just a valuable thing for people to see,” Di Salvo said. “There’s a lot of ignorance about this field, but films are a wonderful way of reducing ignorance. It’s ignorance that causes hatred.”
Di Salvo said that films submitted to Sprout must meet three guidelines:
First, the films must show a realistic portrayal of somebody with developmental disabilities. Second, the film has to be something that anyone could enjoy. Third, if there is acting in the film, the person or people in the film with developmental disabilities must actually have developmental disabilities.
“I truly believe that the time should be over when there’s non-disabled actors portraying people with disabilities,” Di Salvo said. “There are good enough actors with developmental disabilities to play those roles. That’s why we refuse to show any film like ‘I Am Sam’ or ‘Radio;’ there’s no need for those.”
The festival was held at Highland High School at two different times: the first was a matinee showing at 3:30 p.m. and the second was an evening showing at 7 p.m. The following films were shown during the matinee showing:
“Hold Me Down” was the first film shown, and is a one-and-a-half minute poetic short. The poem was written and recited by Cam Lasley, a hip-hop artist from Brooklyn who has Down syndrome, and the performance on screen was by Marlon Foster, who is also from Brooklyn and has a developmental disability.
The second film was another one-and-a-half minute poetic short, called “My Love Legacy.” The film featured five young adults with developmental disabilities.
The third film, “Up Syndrome,” featured Rene Morano, who was born with Down syndrome and graduated from a high school for special students in San Antonio, Texas. This film was a playful yet realistic approach of Marano, and was awarded the grand prize at Kevin Smith’s Movies Askew contest in 2006.
The fourth film was a short documentary titled “Between Sasquatch and Superman.” The audience learns that Clark Kerns, who was born with Down syndrome, felt like an outsider while he was in school, and because of this experience he has garnered a love of researching and dressing as both Sasquatch and Superman, both of whom he says are also outsiders. Kerns has also written and directed his own film for this year’s Sprout Film Festival, called “Superman: Vampire Killer,” according to Di Salvo.
The fifth film, “Be My Brother,” was a short Australian narrative about a young man with Down syndrome who ends up challenging the prejudices of two strangers he meets at a bus stop. “Be My Brother” won the award for best film at the TropFest Film Festival in Australia and the main actor, Gerard O’Dwyer, also won the award for best actor at the same festival.
“He may be the best actor with developmental disabilities I’ve ever seen,” Di Salvo said.
The sixth film was called “One Question,” and it was just that. Thirty-five people with developmental disabilities looked into the camera one at a time and were asked to answer the question, “If you could change something about yourself, what would you change?” Di Salvo, who came up with the idea of the film, said that originally his intent was to show how everybody is the same and that everyone wants to change the same things about themselves. However, after asking the same question to both people with and without developmental disabilities, he came to the realization that people do not want the same things.
For example, many of the people without developmental disabilities said they would change things about themselves cosmetically, such as their eye color or the shape of their nose. Most of the people with developmental disabilities, however, took the question in a different direction.
“With the people with developmental disabilities, that’s the first time and the only time I heard ‘be a better person’ so many times. Or be nicer, or be less angry,” Di Salvo said. “For me, if I can get to the point where I could change anything and I just want to be a better person, that’s a pretty good place to be spiritually. But then a couple of them said, ‘Nothing, I’m happy the way I am.’ I don’t think I’ll ever get there. Listening to these answers, it was almost like a Buddhist lesson I was getting from them. I was not expecting these answers.”
The seventh film was called “How’s Your News? On the Campaign Trail.” The documentary started at a camp in New Hampshire with six people with different developmental disabilities. The six set off in an RV all across the country and began interviewing people they met along the way. In the film, the six reporters went to the 2004 Democratic and Republican presidential conventions and were able to interview various politicians and celebrities. After the film was originally debuted in 2005, MTV saw the documentary and decided to air six half-hour episodes of “How’s Your News?”
“They aired six episodes on MTV, which to me is very groundbreaking,” Di Salvo said. “It didn’t get renewed, but it was still a big break through.”
The eighth film shown at the festival was “Rudely Interrupted,” which was a documentary about an Australian indie rock band by the same name. Five of the six members in the band have developmental disabilities, including Down syndrome, autism and Asperger syndrome.
The final film was “Close My Eyes,” a music video released in 2010 by Rudely Interrupted. The band sounded energetic, tight-knit and controlled.
The nine films shown during the matinee are only a small selection of films that Sprout has to work with. To see these films or hundreds of others featuring people with developmental disabilities, log on to www.sproutflix.org. The Web site was created to work just like Netflix, but shows films from Sprout’s library. Many of the films can either be watched in their entirety for free or purchased for a small fee. Fifty percent of all money raised by the site goes directly back to the film makers, Di Salvo said.
This year, the Sprout Touring Film Festival is being held in about 35 cities around the country, Di Salvo said. After the tour is over, Sprout will be holding their 11th annual Sprout Film Festival in New York City from May 31 to June 2.