A groundbreaking documentary strips down life and disability while breathing new life into the film industry.
If you were to ask a roomful of random individuals what life is—or what it represents—you’d likely get a thousand different answers. Some might be easy and obvious. Others might make your ears ring, because you begin to watch that person’s life unfold as their lips form an answer. While you’re listening, however, you realize that every answer is a direct result of that person’s experiences in life.
That’s what makes the very act of living and breathing so enriching. It’s what makes you want to squeeze every ounce of existence out of your bones—what makes you feel alive. As a society, mankind has celebrated and encouraged this, no matter how one chooses to express it. So, when we apply this notion of celebrating life to individuals with disabilities, one has to wonder: Do we, as a collective group of intelligent human beings, give them a fair shot?
Do we give them their due—the celebration they deserve? Do we truly allow them to have their moment of pure happiness and joy for just being alive? Are we too quick to write them off as something they’re not? Moreover, what are we doing to not only let people with disabilities have their moment, but also help others open their eyes?
If one were to ask film choreographer and director Michael Barnett these questions, they, too, would be surprised by his answers—but in the absolute best way possible.
Barnett is the mastermind behind Becoming Bulletproof—a groundbreaking documentary which delves into the lives of a diverse group of disabled actors as they film a feature-length Western. Along the way, the audience gets an opportunity to witness the individual triumphs of the 12-actor cast and how their challenges impacted the set as well as the film crew. As seen throughout the documentary itself, that often presented its own challenge due to the nature of each actor’s disability.
The range of disabilities that are represented in this—ranging from Downs’ syndrome to cerebral palsy—speaks to the very heart of diversity. It gives you, as an audience member, an immersive glimpse of what’s it’s like to have a massive amount of directions thrown at you while still trying to meet the needs and demands of each disability As someone with cerebral palsy myself, I think there’s beauty in that because it shows that everyone deserves “a seat at the table”—and if they don’t have one already, they earn one.
Not only that, but things really get put into perspective when one considers the incredible amount of patience required on both sides of the camera. The actors needed to have patience because their disabilities played too much of a role while shooting scenes—which led to long hours and countless takes to get the scenes right. On flipside of that, there’s Michael and executive producers Jeffrey Pechter and Derek Boomstra—along with producer Theodore James, working with and adapting to these actors needs to shoot this movie the way they envision it on paper.
Each actor involved leaves the world they know behind and brings their own unique vibe to Zeno Mountain Farm—a disability-related facility located in California, where the documentary was filmed during an annual camp hosted by the staff. The organization is dedicated to building a strong foundation for friendship, self-worth and a sense of community.
The cast and crew spent approximately a month there, filming for countless hours. As AJ Murray, one of the lead actors who has cerebral palsy stated in the documentary, the process was difficult but rewarding:
“Everyone has challenges. We all want love, respect and dignity for every human being.”
That alone is a prominent theme in the entire documentary. There’s a scene where the crew is taking a break from filming, and two of AJ’s fellow actors got engaged. Another truly beautiful moment is when AJ and Suzi, an assistant on set who is able-bodied, act out a scenario in which they meet each other for the first time. It’s beautiful not only because they acted this out in front of the whole cast and crew, but also because it’s genuine.
There wasn’t any awkward dialogue in terms of his CP, giving Suzie a chance weave it into the scenario naturally. I think that moment represents everything a disabled individual should work towards—the way they’re perceived by another person and how that perception dictates how they treat them. If it’s not the perception someone expects, there’s always room to change it—as Suzie comments on:
“I had a hundred disillusions about disabilities before camp. I was under the impression that people with disabilities weren’t on the same level as me mentally. To realize I underestimated their abilities crushed me. Especially not giving certain people a chance crushed me.”
The documentary closes on the final day of filming, but fast forwards to a year later—when the cast is invited back to Zeno Mountain Farm to attend a showing of the now finished movie in an actual theater. The camera focuses on the actors, who are rightfully beaming with pride. In fact, AJ gets the surprise of his life when his mother sneaks into the theater and asks him, “Are you excited?”
However, he gets emotional while reflecting on his time at camp:
“It’s hard to go back to the real world after you see how camp works. You feel significance, dignity and worthiness at camp—and lose your sense of worth when returning home.”
People have asked me /what I’d be if I weren’t a writer. My answer has almost always had something to do with the film industry—probably writing scripts for movies—because I love movies. After watching Becoming Bulletproof, however, I’m sure I wouldn’t want to go into film just because of my passion for cinema. I’d want to venture into that world to make a difference.
One can argue that this documentary is about disabilities. They can say it’s just about a man who gave others an opportunity—and they’d be right. However, it’s not about any of that, if they choose to only look at this one way.
This is a major milestone—not only for the film industry, but for society. It’s a vibrant celebration of human life, an affirmation of why we breathe, and how we respond when the world tells us, “You can’t.” There are times when words don’t say nearly enough—and for me, this is one of them.
So I hope a simple thank you will do—to all the writers, producers and the brave genius of Michael Barnett. It’s not much, but know that it comes from a place of love and common ground.
Photo Credit: www.clevelandfilm.org