Thursday, May 25, 2017

Filming autistic swim team changed mom

By Louise Kinross

Swim Team is a feature documentary about the sense of community and joy three youth with autism experience swimming on a competitive team called the Jersey Hammerheads. It’s also the story of their parents and their extraordinary efforts to support children who have been written off by professionals and shut out by other families. The film was part of the ReelAbilities Film Festival in Toronto this month. BLOOM interviewed director Lara Stolman.

BLOOM: Why was it important to you to do this film?

Lara Stolman: I’m the mother of a child with autism myself. I was searching for swimming lessons for my son and I found this amazing story.

BLOOM: That’s so interesting, because I assumed as director that you didn’t have experience with autism.

Lara Stolman:
I don’t think I would have seen it the way I saw it, and I don’t think I would have been granted the access I achieved with the families, if I hadn’t been the mother of a child with autism.

When my son was little he had no fear of water. When he couldn’t swim, I was worried he would just wander off and jump into a lake or pool and drown. I found Coach Mike and his wife Maria and they told me about their plans to start their own team. So from a story standpoint, I was there at the beginning, which was great.

BLOOM: The film includes many private and candid moments with the boys and their parents. For example, in one scene Robert, who is 16, learns he has autism. How did it work out that you were present for those?

Lara Stolman: I appreciate that question. It’s part of a documentary filmmaker’s job to gain the trust of the subjects. But in this case it was much easier to get to that point where everyone was comfortable with me, and willing to let me come into their lives with cameras, because of who I am as a parent. We had so much in common from day one.

BLOOM: Some of the most moving parts are when the parents talk honestly about raising their child with autism—including how isolating it is for them and the pain they feel when their child is excluded. What did you learn from the parents?

Lara Stolman: Being a parent of a child with autism I came in knowing a ton, but I still learned a lot. One of the reasons I felt so compelled to make this film was that as much as I had in common with these people, there was something I didn’t have in common: their positive outlook and their willingness to have high expectations.

I had come from a place where professionals said so many negative and terrible things about my child’s prognosis. I don’t think that’s unusual. Doctors tell parents of kids at the age of two or three that your child is never going to college, your child will never speak, your child will never take care of himself. When you hear that repeatedly, it’s extremely discouraging and defeating and can really impact the whole family in a negative way.

When I met Mike and Maria I was so struck by how positive they were. They heard the same negative things, but they persisted with their high expectations with their son. They wanted to see if their high expectations would rub off on the other kids and I believe they did, and they rubbed off on me too. I changed as a mom. I learned the importance of not giving up on your child, setting those expectations high, and not letting the other people around you give up on your child.

BLOOM: So many of the film’s scenes are magical because they’re shot underwater. How did you do that?

Lara Stolman: We had a director of photography who wore a wet suit and encased a camera in a water-proof casing and she swam with her camera. I also used GoPros and we experimented and placed them in different ways and had the boys wear them themselves.

BLOOM: The parents articulate really hard parts of their lives. Did their experiences mirror yours?

Lara Stolman:
Now we’re really getting inside the story. No one has asked me this and I’m a little apprehensive. Of course I did all the interviews. I was on the other side of the camera, and I decided what questions to ask and which questions to edit into the film. I decided how to structure those answers into the film and how to fit the story into the film. My experience influenced it all.

I thought there were very important things that needed to be communicated. The film needed to communicate how hard parents work at helping their children when they have challenges, and how they’re working round the clock. All of the parents in this case had full-time jobs and one was going through a divorce.

It needed to show that sometimes financially for families it’s a burden or a hardship or impossible. It was important to convey that the services and supports aren’t sufficient, and that it can be very scary for parents when they think about what’s going to happen when they’re no longer around.

These kids are generally excluded or ostracized from so many things other families take for granted. The film was about a swimming team, but it could have been a film about a marching band or a theatre group. The point was that these are things that, if you’re a family with typical kids, you know they’re available to your family. And it’s not just for your kids, it’s for the family.

Sports is like the town square. Families can interact with one another and meet one another. In the midst of all of that is a lot of important socializing. If your child is excluded from those kinds of activities, you’re also excluded and isolated as a family. This swim team provided a much-needed sense of normalcy and community that these families hadn’t experienced.

I remember Maria telling me that Mike had never been invited to a birthday party and she’ll never forget the time she tried to invite people to a party for him and no one came. She cried when she told me that story.

BLOOM: I was moved by the interviews with Patty. She would be talking with a smile and then there would be tears running down her cheeks, but she would try to return to a smile. It made me think about how as parents we feel we have to always present a positive face to the world, because disability is so stigmatized.

Lara Stolman: I live about an hour away from these families, but in making this film I definitely became a part of their community and I fell in love with them and their kids. It was really important to me to show that even with a character like Kelvin, who represents a child that needs so much support, that he’s funny and lovable and talented and has things to contribute.

BLOOM: What was the most challenging part of putting the film together?

Lara Stolman: I think the hardest part was deciding what was going to be in the film and what we’d have to leave out. We had such great material, and there were such interesting families on the team. But I knew from the beginning we had to narrow it down. I had a clear sense that it had to be two to four characters in order to really tell an indepth story about these characters.

BLOOM: What do you hope viewers take from it?

Lara Stolman: I hope it inspires other families to set high expectations for their children, and I hope it inspires professionals to not make prognoses when there’s still so much that’s unknown about autism. I also hope the film serves to open the eyes of people who haven’t had experience with autism to the stigma and stereotypes that are still out there. And I hope it shows that young people with autism can have skills, they can be fun and worthy and valuable members of our community.

It’s so important that cinema reflects our lives. People with autism and developmental disabilities and all disabilities need to see their lives reflected in cinema. I hope this film helps in that respect.

BLOOM: I think it would have been hard for you to make this film if you hadn’t been the mom of a child with autism.

Lara Stolman: I have to say that nobody else could have made this film. As a mother raising a child who’s approaching his transition years, I saw that these were important problems that we should make the public aware of. I was aware of these public policy issues about how do we include people with disabilities—especially developmental disabilities—in our community, in the midst of a history where, forever, we’ve excluded them. It wasn’t that long ago that we shipped them off to institutions. What’s really important for these families is that their kids find jobs, and have some semblance of independence, and the film shows how difficult that is.

BLOOM: And even more so now with the cuts that are being proposed to Medicaid, which will affect so many families of children with disabilities.

Lara Stolman:
It makes it even more urgent. The president wants to cut all of this aid. That would make a bad situation even worse.

To find out about upcoming screenings, visit Swim Team.