________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 20 . . . . May 30, 2008

cover This Ability.

Lorna Boschman (Writer & Director). Tracey Friesen (Producer). Rina Fraticelli (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2006.
29 min., 18 sec., VHS or DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9106 350.

Subject Headings:
Artists with disabilities-Canada.
People with disabilities-Canada.

Grades 5 and up / Ages 10 and up.

Review by Julie Chychota.

***1/2 /4


What I love about this program, and why I think it’s so critical, is that it gives us an opportunity to start seeing the world through the eyes of people with disabilities. (Rina Fraticelli, Executive Producer, NFB Pacific and Yukon Centre.)

This Ability collects and connects six short films that evolved out of a media workshop conducted by the National Film Board (NFB) in tandem with the Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion (BACI). Over the course of one year, through weekly meetings with NFB Director Lorna Boschman, developmentally disabled participants acquired new skills with which to express themselves through film. Each of the resultant documentaries is as unique as the first-time filmmaker who conceived of it.

     In a preface to the workshop films, NFB and BACI representatives explain the origins of the media workshop, the intention behind it, and how it was conducted. The six short films then follow in their entirety. As a segue into each one, Boschman provides an introductory sentence that encapsulates that particular filmmaker’s singular approach; these insights are accompanied by footage of the filmmakers’ hands-on training and their conversations with Boschman. The compilation concludes with sequences shot at the BACI-hosted movie launch, an event on par with the Academy awards for all those involved.

     A deliberate pun on “disability,” the collection’s title calls attention to the specific presence of, rather than absence or lack of, ability. With gentle insistence, it encourages viewers to set aside their preconceptions of developmentally disabled persons as “different.” In fact, the filmmakers have chosen themes that will resonate with a broad audience, themes that may be grouped loosely under the following three headings: work, family and leisure, and advocacy. Ginger Gibbons’ “Strengths and Weaknesses” and Shannon Leclair’s “I Love My Job!” fit into the first category. Gibbons’ film is instructional insofar as it relates key points on “how to get a job in the community”; in contrast, Leclair’s adopts a more strictly descriptive tactic, since it mainly enumerates tasks. Into the second group fall the films of Watson Moy and Sean Craig who choose to explore relationships with family members and favorite leisure pursuits in “Fishing with My Father” and “Life Patterns,” respectively. The final classification comprises Michelle McDonald’s “Be Kind to Spiders” and Gerry Juzenas’ “Community Courage.” The former advocates on behalf of spiders, the latter on behalf of developmentally disabled individuals. It quickly becomes evident that these six filmmakers want nothing less than most human beings: to be respected, to participate in a community, to engage in meaningful activity, and to enjoy opportunities for personal growth.

     Sound experts adroitly handle the musical accompaniment with a light touch, so that it collaborates with, instead of competes with, the visual imagery and dialogue. Subtle variations in the music underscore the visual transitions from one segment of film to the next. For instance, the frames including Boschman are set to fanciful, lilting measures evocative of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies.” Ethereal riffs thread their way through McDonald’s “Be Kind to Spiders,” whereas the music for “Fishing with My Father” employs tones lower and hollower, like those of bamboo pipes, perhaps to elicit echoes of Moy’s Thai heritage. The tempo decelerates for Gibbons’s “Strengths and Weaknesses,” but accelerates for Craig’s “Life Patterns.” Sustained and subdued synthesizer chords lend Juzenas’ “Community Courage” solemnity, while a jazzy melody complements Leclair’s upbeat “I Love My Job!” For the finale, jubilant notes sweep across the images of participants pulling up in limousines, walking down the red carpet, and receiving their awards. The music, then, not only augments the films’ subjects, but also the filmmakers’ personalities and emotions.

     For the most part, camera work unfolds in a predictable fashion; yet there are at least three instances noteworthy for breaking with routine and creating visual interest. For example, “Be Kind to Spiders” twice includes insets of McDonald, corresponding to the points where her narration begins a new sub-topic. In a different vein, Moy opts to use a number of still photos of past fishing expeditions, which not only jog his father’s memory and his own, but also make their exchange more immediate and tangible to viewers. In the third case, Juzenas injects his film with a symbolically rich moment. “Community Courage” documents Richard McDonald’s self-advocacy in seeking compensation for the ill treatment he and other developmentally disabled persons suffered at the government-run Woodlands institution. Footage of the two men ten-pin bowling interlaces with footage of the interview. As Juzenas wishes his friend well with the settlement, the camera closes on McDonald’s perfectly executed strike, as though success in the alley forecasts success in court. These examples attest to imaginative and attentive minds invested in their new-found craft.
This Ability is a valuable resource for classroom or recreational use. First, brevity and frequent shifts in topic are likely to hold even the shortest of attention spans. The short films run an average of three to four minutes, the longest clocking in at five-and-a-half, so that the entire compilation is a scant half-hour long. Second, in any setting, one could pause the DVD between short films to allow for discussion. In addition, other developmentally disabled persons and their families could draw encouragement from these fresh filmmakers-cum-role models. Finally, the documentary is free of questionable content, for even though “Community Courage” mentions that residents of the Woodlands institution suffered abuse, it spares viewers the details. For these reasons, it would be in libraries’ best interest to acquire this ability for their collections.

According to Rina Fraticelli, Executive Producer, the NFB has proudly supported women, indigenous communities, and visible minority communities as these groups express themselves through film. Thanks to BACI and other partner organizations in the media workshop initiative, NFB was able to extend that same commitment to developmentally disabled Canadians. The implicit take-away message of this documentary is two-fold: members of society must learn to see the potential in fellow human beings, no matter their differences, and they must also devise further cooperative and inclusive opportunities. As filmmaker Ginger Gibbons emphasizes, “We all do need a chance to learn different things.”

Highly Recommended.

Julie Chychota lives in Ottawa, ON, and works as a computer interpreter and sometime transcriptionist.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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