director: Michael Barnatt
Before I watched this movie I had never heard of Zeno Mountain Farm or any of their projects. It turns out that ever since about 2008, they have been organizing a number of annual events where people with disabilities get the chance to come and experience the joy and satisfaction that come with collaborating on a group project.
In the case of Becoming Bulletproof, that project is a film. In previous years, Zeno has made a horror movie, a romantic comedy, and a time-travelling movie. Each film involves a professional crew of volunteers and a large cast of actors, approximately 1/3 of whom have disabilities such as Williams syndrome, cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, and autism. This year, the film is a western called Bulletproof Jackson.
The documentary follows the filmmaking process, showing both the exciting moments (staging a gunfight) and the boredom inducing or downright irritating moments (waiting to shoot your scene while others are doing theirs; sitting through take after take as your costars forget their lines or someone lets the boom cast a shadow over an actor's face).
At the same time, it explores the philosophy behind Zeno. Each person who attends the camp is paired with another person who looks after his or her physical needs and provides companionship. However, the camp does not use terms like "clients" and "staff or "campers" and "counsellors." This means that even though some participants need someone to, say, help them with physical activities like bathing or dressing themselves, there is still a sense of dignity about the whole affair. As one of the camp founders points out, many of the camp attendees spend
little to no time during the rest of the year with people who aren't
paid to spend time with them. One of the rules of the camp, therefore, is that no one pays to be there, and no one is paid to be there.
There are many cast members, but the film focuses on just a few. AJ is a 32 year old man with cerebral palsy who has just joined Zeno this year. He had applied to attend a while back, but because the organization's philosophy states that people are invited back every year, he had to wait for a space to open up. When it finally did, he was overjoyed. AJ's mom, with whom he lives, expresses happiness that he has this opportunity, relief that she will have some respite, and trepidation at sending her son across the country to be with strangers for several weeks.
AJ is an incredibly appealing and thoughtful person. His life is not easy; he experiences pain on an almost minute by minute basis, accompanied by frustration at his physical limitations, and yet, as his mother says, he maintains an amazing sense of hope and happiness. He wants to be an actor; as one of the able-bodied Zeno participants says, he is hopeful but realistic about his situation. AJ knows he isn't likely to be the lead detective in a CSI show. But if there's a character who is in a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy? Well, then AJ would definitely be the person to do it.
Jeremy, a Zeno veteran, has the lead role as Jackson. He has Williams syndrome, a chromosomal condition which results in a preturnaturally excellent ear for music (we see Jeremy playing the piano and drums with ease and skill), but also intellectual difficulties. People with Williams Sydrome are very social and verbal, and it is easy to see what a benefit this is to Jeremy as an actor. He is natural and charming in the role of Jackson--he has a lot of natural charisma and wit on screen and knows it.
Judy is a woman with cerebral palsy who is more physically limited than AJ, but unlike AJ, she is quite isolated in her daily life. She spends a lot of time alone, and as a result has acquired a doll because, she says, she needed someone to nurture and talk to. Judy is heartbreaking in her directness about her life circumstances, and like all the others is very appealing. She's not always easy to understand (the film helps out with subtitles) but as we witness conversations between her and her Zeno companion, we witness her sly humour emerge.
The film's subject matter could lend itself to a glossily superficial treatment of inspirational people with disabilities. It would be easy to just make a feel-good film that didn't delve deeply into the uncomfortable truths of people's lives. But Becoming Bulletproof doesn't do that. In addition to Judy's frank and honest admission about her lonely day-to-day existence outside Zeno, we also see AJ's mom break down as she admits the grief of knowing that her son experiences excruciating pain and she can't make it better for him. Not only that, but we also see AJ break down as he expresses his frustration at his limitations--Zeno, he says, helps him feel his life has purpose and that he is a worthwhile contributor. When he's at home and can't do anything, he says he feels like he is worthless. By this point, we have gotten to know him quite well and it is heartbreaking to hear such a vibrant, engaged person speak this way about himself. But it's something that we need to hear, because it is the reality for many with his condition.
The documentary neatly avoids many of the pitfalls that could beset a feel-good movie. There is no glossing over the uncomfortable facts of life with a disability, and it is not artificially upbeat. But at the same time, it's not a grim life lesson, either. There are plenty of genuinely funny moments where we are laughing with, not at, the actors. The participants are natural and charming, and they all clearly care deeply about each other. The director of Bulletproof Jackson plainly states that he holds everyone up to a high standard, and we can feel the sense of purpose that the cast and crew feel as they pull together to accomplish this amazing project.
At the end of the film, we see the Zeno movie's premiere. The end result is polished looking and professional--a miracle on a budget that probably doesn't even come in over $25,000. I found myself wishing we could watch more than the two or three minutes of the finished result that we see in the film.
I'm happy to see that Becoming Bulletproof and the film within the film are getting more publicity at various festivals across North America. I highly recommend Becoming Bulletproof--it is exactly what a good documentary should be. It's impossible to watch this and not root for the participants! Definitely two thumbs up.
More information about Zeno Mountain Farm.
More information about Becoming Bulletproof.