How did the opportunity arrive? What inspired you to do your film? What was Russia like? Who are the Musketeers?
In late 2013, I received an email message from Jon Alpert, co-founder of DCTV, a non-profit foundation, and 15 time Emmy Award winner, two time Oscar nominated director, asking me if I would be interested to take part in a US-Russia LINK Media pioneer program. His email went on to explain that the program would involve in creating short documentaries about disabilities. "The goal is to produce films that provide a deeper understanding of disability and to promote friendship between Russia and the United States". And if all goes as plan, selected US and Russian filmmakers will have the opportunity to share their films in a festival in Moscow, Russia as well as in other regions by fall of 2014.
After our first phone call and further details of the project, I jumped at the opportunity and said "Absofreakinlutely"!
The first cut submission date was April 2014 and I worked hard to create a script, dialogue, and filmed character profiles to put my envisioned piece together. When the cut was sent in April, I was pleased to hear supportive and complimentary responses from Jon and the producers. However, the film length needed to be dropped to less than 10 minutes and there were many areas to be improved on for the film to be most effective. Jon encouraged me with some media making wisdom. He wrote, "you've clearly worked hard on this. You've collected some wonderful, powerful stories in addition to your own. But editing and storytelling is ultimately about what you have the courage to cut. Not what you keep". With his feedback, I edited it down but with so much time removed, my story line no longer held its "flow". I knew I had to re-write and shoot new scenes but I felt discouraged because I was losing energy and momentum.
Going into 2014, my body was in gradual pain and it was worsening. Constantly grimacing, I experienced constant leg spasms, side pains and developed stomach problems. Even though I went through numerous doctor visits, the issue was still elusive. With my persistent body issues, I started becoming emotionally distressed. I powered through it, in the first half of spring, but it caught up to me. Faced with my day-to-day responsibilities, work projects and this film, I began losing motivation and felt an overwhelming sense of hopelessness, humility, and failure. Feeling depressed and plagued with anxiety, I was only able to focus on things I wasn't accomplishing. I was ready to give up. I had let all my media photography and video obligations go. Then I threw in the towel with the film.
After attempting to revisit editing multiple times, I had no motivational or creative strength to go on. In the beginning of June, I sent Jon and the DCTV producers an email explaining that I could not finish shooting and editing to get the film. I was in too much pain. I also explained that I paid a visit to an orthopedic and with his examination he found that I had a torn tendon (labral tear), arthritis build up, and bone spurs on my left hip joint. Surgery will be needed and It was scheduled at the end of the month, well past their required deadline date for final cut submission. After reading my "drop-out" email, Jon called me the following day and simply asked. "If we give you time, do you believe in yourself enough to get through your surgery, heal and recover so you can finish your film and submit a final cut before the end of August?" I thought to myself for a moment, mentally pushing past the depression, the pain and imagining a "new and pain-free me" in a month. Then finding a shred of faith and self-assurance, I said yes.
Although the surgery was postponed to mid July, the time for surgery came and a big sigh of relief came over me.
The recovery time was hasty. I thought I could bounce back right away but it proved otherwise. I needed a couple of weeks to do absolutely nothing. Finally, I mustered up energy to begin exercising my hip. Next, I stirred up positive thoughts to motivate my mind to think. Then as I began to re-approach my film, I felt at ease knowing what I needed to do to revive my project. After a week of re-scripting and filming, I completely changed directions from my original film, which included part of my story but mainly focused on other influential personalities in the community, to create "Moving Forward"- Learning To Cope With A Disability. A documentary of my personal story and struggles living with a spinal cord injury, including the recent experience of my hip injury that sent me into an emotional and physical tail spin.
After a few intensive days of editing, I was able to deliver a completely different film for the August deadline. With Jon Alpert's direction and a couple more cuts, it was ready for the film festival in Moscow.
off to russia!
Then the time to travel to Russia had arrived. My surgery was less than six weeks ago and I was slightly nervous but I remained confident that I was strong enough for travel in September with Jon Alpert and fellow musketeer filmmakers; Jeff Arak, Benjamin Rosloff, Donna Capella. Elena Zubareva, and Jonathan Novick. Of which, Jon's film "Don't Look Down On Me" went viral with over 2.6 million views!
The moscow Welcome
Ah Moscow. The beauty of this city was outstanding! Each of us soaked in every moment. Making wide-eyed observations from the organized chaos of fast moving vehicles weaving in and out of lanes with mere inches away of collision, to billboards lining the highways with unfamiliar alphabet characters, to the great architecture in monuments, statues and buildings of a historical Russian era.
There was so much visual consumption of the world around us that we kept telling each other; "Wow! We're in Russia", "We-are-in-Russia!"
Imagine slow eyes gazes peering around, half smiling with our mouths open.
Our first media adventure took place the same evening we arrived at the Moscow Documentary Film Center - The First Russian cinema hall for documentary films and new cultural and educational venue. Here we got to mingle and get to know our fellow Russian Musketeer filmmakers in the program. And as a group, it was incredible seeing our films on a big screen and hearing the laughter, sniffles and applause from the audience that felt touched by the personal challenges and triumphs shared in our stories.
(photos by: Artem Chernov)
The following day we toured through the world famous Red Square. Taking in the scenery, capturing lots of photos and enjoying the Russian atmosphere.
As the day of taking in the sights went quickly, evening began and it was time to say dosvidanya! (Goodbye) to Donna Cappella and Elena Zubareva. They jumped on a five-hour flight towards Krasnoyarsk, Siberia where their media adventures with TVK (Krasnoyarsk) lied for the rest of the trip.
Meanwhile Ben, Jeff, Jon Novick, Jon Alpert, and I continued on as we made our way to Sergiev Posad guided by Olga Kravtsova. Co-director of the Musketeer US-Russia program, kind and caring Russian host, sharp minded translator and our fierce & fearless road warrior behind the wheel (I sat co-pilot allot as she drove us to our destinations O_O).
In Sergiev Posad, we set off for the film festival where the surprise welcome festivities were high in spirits, as we were greeted by authentic Russian folk music singers and dancers. We watched, danced and sang songs. I even got a special costume and played dress up while singing "Old McDonald" with Jon Novick!
The evening continued to be dynamic as we shared and spoke about our films, watched Jon Novick battle dance against a choreographed dance team and continued to make connections with our Russian Musketeer counterparts and friends.
The days following consisted of many wonderful activities such as; visiting schools and programs for people with disabilities, being introduced to the Ministry of Social Safety, (ADA board equivalent). Spending time learning about Russian culture by visiting people who welcomed us in their homes and exploring national sites, such as The Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra, the largest monastery in Russia.
We also had the opportunity to talk about our films and the musketeer program on live television through TV Radoneje (Sergiev Posad)
Was it tough to travel around Russia in a wheelchair? In a word, yes. Some sidewalks and streets are cobblestone, have cracks, crevices and uneven surfaces. I noticed when comparing the geometry of the rigid wheelchairs used by most Russian wheelchair users, the front angle of the chair had close to a 45-degree angle. This angle helps compensate the chairs to go down curbs, steeps ramps and navigate easier over cracks and cobblestone without the worry of hitting a rut and tipping forward. I learned very quickly as my chair is built with with a 90-degree angle, as most rigid US chair makers are built, to ask for assistance in these situations where I could see myself falling forward if I didn’t wheelie, ask for a spot, or need a lift here and there.
I found most places we visited to have many steps and stairs in the restaurant and shops. If there were ramps available, I found that most ramps were extremely pitched and had a curb. Meaning the ramp started with a step.
Bathroom wise, other than the couple of hotels we stayed in, there were very few accessible bathrooms around town. Most were a very tight squeeze.
But overall, there were many locations that the entrance was easy to come through and the bathroom was handy dandy. And in the cases where it wasn't, I was very fortunate to have many hands to assist navigate me through the walkways; help me up and down stairs, and steep ramps.
I have many respects to the lone wheelchair users in Russia who can navigate independently around town through these circumstances.
One of the many great impressions Russia left on me was its people. Everyone we encountered was so courteous. The wonderful fact was that they were as excited to meet us, as we were to meet them. We certainly fumbled around with the language barrier at times, as we strived to learn a few greetings and phrases in Russian. But we were very surprised and humbled to find that many Russian citizens spoke English or learned many English phrases.
Of course, nothing beats a welcoming smile, a genuine handshake and a hardy hug to demonstrate the appreciation and respect we had for each other!
from russia to new york
Even though, the weeklong stay in Russia went by so quickly, travels did not cease when we gathered together at the Moscow airport to make our way back to the States. Because three weeks later (in October) we reconvened back at DCTV in New York to welcome the Russian Musketeers to the US!
We had the chance to see them wide-eyed and full excitement as they toured the sights and sounds of Manhattan. We had the opportunity to see them fulfill their dreams of visiting the beach for their first time and experience many facets New York has to offer. We spent time visiting organizations and had the ear of the Commissioner, at the New York City Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, Victor Calise. A Live broadcast came in the way through Democracy Now.org; where Mariam Magomedova, Jon Novick, Jon Alpert, and Olga Kravtsova continued the buzz about the Media Musketeers US-Russia program.
The pinnacle of this trip was having the premiere screening of our films at the HBO headquarters. Having the delight of watching our films on the big screen, taking hold of a US audience as they too made personal connections with our stories.
But the heart and soul of this collective journey, is the bond we formed with each other.
In both of our countries, we stood up side by side for advocacy. We shared films to portray the challenges we face. We laughed, ached, and cried. We ate and drank merrily. We hugged, held hands and ultimately created genuine friendships.
Thank you Russian friends & fellow Musketeers for all your work, dedication, acceptance, and love! Miss you guys!
All For One, One For All! - Все за одного , и один за всех!
A big THANK YOU to Jon Alpert, Olga Kravtsova and Karina Chupina for pioneering this program.
And to the funders: The U.S. Department of State, the Eurasia Foundation and its SEE (US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange) Program. With additional support from NHL hall of famer Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, SONY, Bank of America Matching Gift Program, Time Warner Cares, The Center for New Media and Society (Moscow), TV Radoneje (Sergiev Posad), and TVK (Krasnoyarsk).
(Photos: US-Russia Musketeers)
See All the Musketeer Films
The HBO Film Premier Cuts:
Don't Look Down On Me (6min) by Jonathan Novick (U.S.) - (Dwarfism: Daily Life)
Ambush (4min) by Konstantin Bogdanov (Russia) - (Paraplegic: Parking Issues)
Can I Call You? (3min) by Benjamin Rosloff (U.S.) - (Autism: Relationships)
Diana (3min) by Diana Perfilyeva (Russia) - (Blind: Singing)
Unstoppable (6min) by Elena Zubareva (U.S.) - (Challenged Athletes)
Mariam's Victory (9min) by Maryam Magomedova (Russia) - (Spinal Bifida: Arts)
Moving Forward (6.5min) by Andrew Angulo (U.S.) - (Paraplegic: Life)
I Want, Therefore I Can (6min) by Natalia Ryzhova (Russia) - (Amputee: Athletics)
Mid-life Disability-No Crystal Ball (10.5min) by Donna Cappella (U.S.) - (Brain Injury:Life)
The Few Days of Life (6.5min) by Irina Vladimirova (Russia) - (Dwarfism: Daily Life)
Special Format (6min) by Sergiev (Russia) - (Blind: Daily Life)
Kenny (6min) by Jeff Arak (U.S.) - (Deaf/Blind: Life)
I’m Like A Bird But With No Wings (4min) by Vladimir Turushev (Russia) - (Spinal Bifida: Daily Life/Family)
The US Films Original Final Cuts: