It was just early last week that I found myself arriving back in Indianapolis following a 13-day wheelchair ride around the hiking and biking trails of Northern Indiana, a wheelchair ride I call the Tenderness Tour and a wheelchair ride that I have undertaken in one form or another for the past 25 years of my life in an effort to transcend my disability, improve the lives of others, break the cycle of abuse/violence, and just because it's the thing in my life that brings me the greatest joy and the greatest sense of purpose.
So, when 32-year-old A.J. Murray, one of the subjects of the stellar documentary Becoming Bulletproof, waxes eloquently and with tremendous vulnerability about that sense of feeling worthless on his way home following what was likely one of the most life-changing trips of his life, I have to admit that I found myself quietly sobbing as I sat in my chair at the film's first of three screenings at the 2014 Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis.
I am not one to often use the phrase "must see," but Becoming Bulletproof may very well be the "must see" feature-length documentary at this year's Heartland Film Festival, a festival that celebrates everything this film has to offer - a life-affirming spirit, a positive message, a rich authenticity, and a true embrace of the great diversity of humanity.
If I'm possibly building up Becoming Bulletproof too much, then so be it.
As I was talking to Heartland Director of Marketing & PR Greg Sorvig after the film's screening, we both agreed that we needed to do everything we possibly could to ensure that the film's next three screenings on 10/21, 10/23, and 10/24 absolutely pack the house because this is precisely the type of film that Heartland audiences love to see.
The film centers around Zeno Mountain Farm, a diverse collective of sorts started by Peter and William Halby along with their wives. and in particular, Zeno's annual camp that creates a film each year utilizing individuals with diverse abilities for the entire cast and crew. From the creative team behind the HBO Documentary Superheroes, Becoming Bulletproof is an intimate and deeply authentic film about the fabric of the Zeno Actors Camp, a camp where the line between the able-bodied actor and the actor with a disability gets irrevocably intertwined in the most beautiful and wondrous of ways.
Now then, before you start thinking "Hey, that camp sounds great. I want to go.," you should realize that the Zeno Actors Camp isn't just your average summer camp in beautiful Venice, CA. Instead, one might very well call it a living creative community and one seriously grand form of social integration. Actors who attend Zeno are invited to participate annually and, in theory, this will be a lifelong opportunity to belong to a most extraordinary community. Thus, it is only when an opening occurs that someone new is added to the camp. For the most part, this occurs through word-of-mouth, though as we learn early on in Becoming Bulletproof, sometimes perseverance and tenacity really pay off.
Becoming Bulletproof opens up with a sort of real world introduction to A.J., a young man living with cerebral palsy and severe enough spasticity that he continues living with and largely reliant upon his mother. While A.J. has dreams, he has for much of his life been trapped in a body that has squelched even the simplest of those dreams. When he discovers Zeno while browsing the internet, he begins a regular correspondence with the group in an effort to obtain the chance to participate. Initially, as one might expect, there are no openings. However, when an opening unexpectedly comes up shortly before a camp, A.J.'s enthusiasm and spirit leads to an invitation being extended for him to participate.
If you've ever been around cerebral palsy, then you already know that even going to the bathroom can be an incredibly challenging task for some who live with CP. Can you imagine everything involved in traveling across the country from his Atlanta, GA home and trusting his physical care to people he's never even met?
Welcome to life with a disability.
Those who participate in Zeno live and work together, many having done so for years and even before the official founding of the group. As Will Halby explained in a Q&A after the film's first Indianapolis screening, the Halby's have had a lifelong commitment to integrating individuals of diverse ability and even before Zeno Mountain Farm he himself had worked in adaptive sports and other areas promoting empowerment and integration. In many ways, Zeno Mountain Farm reminds me of the L'Arche Communities, an international effort to weave together the lives of those with and without a disability. In the case of Zeno, each individual with a disability is paired with an able-bodied companion who will provide whatever assistance may be needed. For A.J., as an example, this may include everything from assistance with bathing to feeding to reading his lines to him as this is how he best integrates the information and is able to memorize it. However, it should be stressed and it is certainly caught on film, this is not about counselors/campers or staff/clients but about human beings weaving their strengths and weaknesses together in a way that acknowledges truth while also stressing interdependence.
No one, including administrators or directors, is paid or pays to participate in Zeno. Parents are discouraged from making donations and, indeed, the overwhelming emphasis is on the fact that this is a community of friends and each member of the community is expected to participate to their highest ability.
Director Michael Barnett has crafted a film that is both entertaining and socially relevant as he masterfully documents intriguing and involving lives while also, quite often through the quiet wisdom of A.J., challenges us to look at how we treat each other and the stereotypes that we allow to dictate our lives on a daily basis. There is one camp participant, for example, who shares with a visible sense of regret how she's allowed pre-conceived ideas about individuals with disabilities to exist in her life and how she has allowed stereotypes of individuals with and without disabilities to keep some people out of her life.
It's this level of honesty and authenticity that makes Becoming Bulletproof such an outstanding and meaningful documentary. Barnett refuses, at least for the most part, to ignore any aspect of the questions that will likely float through your mind as your watching the film as he openly addresses the physical care that is involved in maintaining such a community and, as well, he honestly brings out such issues as intimacy, sexuality, socialization, dependence, and so many other issues that are seldom addressed in films with a disability theme and when they are often have a sort of glossy feel about them.
While it is A.J.'s story that provides a common thread throughout Becoming Bulletproof, Barnett also gives others in the community time for their stories to be told including Jeremy, a 28-year-old with Williams Syndrome who plays the hero in Zeno's latest film, the Western Bulletproof. The film also gives time to Zach, a 29-year-old with Down Syndrome who is known as a nice guy but seems to have a gift for playing baddies, and 53-year-old Judy, a delightful yet occasionally difficult to understand woman whose simple insights on nurturing brought me to tears and whose realistic views on an engagement are quite powerful.
For those of you who've been around the Heartland Film Festival for awhile, you might be thinking to yourself "This sounds like that film Young@Heart." Think again. While the folks in Young@Heart were poignant and entertaining, there was an intentionality with that film that is completely non-existent here. In fact, if you check out the Zeno website or the film's website, you'll see nary a mention of the fact that, at least on occasion, Zeno has also had the presence of a few Hollywood familiar names appearing in its shows. In fact, it was only when an audience member in the Heartland screening mentioned recognizing David Arquette in a brief scene that Hallby affirmed that sighting and mentioned a couple other familiar names who will go nameless here because, at least it's my gut feeling, that's the way Zeno would have it.
Becoming Bulletproof just picked up Best Documentary at the Hollywood Film Festival and seems like it could very well be an odds-on favorite to pick up an Audience Award at the Heartland Film Festival if its opening screening buzz is any indication.
For me, the truly great documentaries are documentaries that change the way you think about life and your own existence. As someone who once started a theatrical troupe called "The Outcast Society" seeking to cast actors and actresses of diverse ability, I found myself entertained, moved, and shifted by Becoming Bulletproof, a film that reminded me to celebrate my strengths as I become an older adult with spina bifida yet also challenged me to create a world in which I am surrounded by individuals with disabilities because, in the end, we all become better human beings as a result.
Becoming Bulletproof will have three more screenings during the Heartland Film Festival:
- 10/21 @ Noon at AMC Traders Point
- 10/23 @ 8:30pm at AMC Castleton
- 10/24 @ 3:45pm at AMC Castleton
For more information on Heartland screenings, visit the Heartland Film Festival website. For more information on the film, visit the film's official website linked to in the credits on the left of this review.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic