Sunday, January 13, 2008

An Interview with Ilana Trachtman, director of Praying with Lior

(Above) Lior Liebling as seen in the documentary Praying with Lior. (Right) Ilana Trachtman

Playing on Tuesday at The Jewish Museum is a very compassionate and moving documentary about Lior Liebling, a boy with down syndrome and an ability to pray with abandon.

You can visit the film's website by clicking

How did you meet Lior? I went to a Rosh Hashanah retreat—a sort of hippie-dippie spiritual retreat—in upstate New York because I had had enough of traditional services and could not relate to the liturgy. And at the retreat’s morning Rosh Hashanah service, I was still bored: I was restless, I was counting the pages, I was thinking of what they were going to be serving at the vegetarian lunch. And Lior was behind me. He was singing in this off-key voice. He was totally focused, reciting in English and Hebrew— doing all of it without any of his enthusiasm wavering. I was just fascinated by the phenomenon of him. First of all, I had never seen anyone like Lior pray before. Second of all, I thought that if I’m supposedly the one who's not disabled, and he’s supposedly the one who is disabled and intellectually compromised, how come he can do what I can’t do? So actually, I was feeling envy. And the mystery of him attracted me. I then heard that he was having a bar mitzvah and I thought that somebody should really make a movie about this.
When you started making the film, Lior’s bar mitzvah was approaching. So you had to fundraise and shoot simultaneously. Could you talk a little bit about the process of looking for funding? I was totally naïve. I had been working in TV for fourteen years but I had never made an independent film before and I didn’t imagine that it was so different. I met Lior in October, started shooting in January and his bar mitzvah was in May. I had no idea how I was going to pay for it. But I just knew it wasn’t an option to say, “oh we can’t shoot today because we have no money”. It was chaotic in that I was just learning how to fundraise, learning how to ask people for money and how to write grant applications. One of my dearest friends who is like a mentor said, “oh sweetie, if you’re making your first independent film, why don’t you look at a topic that’s more commercial rather than the Bar Mitzvah of a kid with Down syndrome?” This was a challenge: How do I get people to give me money for something that sounds like an afterschool special?
While making the film, were you at all worried about it being too sentimental? Yes. First of all, in our society, there’s this fetishizing of kids with Down syndrome. It makes me really uncomfortable. There’s even a calendar that you could buy called “Angels of God” where every month has a different kid with Down syndrome. Luckily, Lior’s family isn’t sentimental. They have this highly developed sense of black humor which made me love them and made it okay to be irreverent. In terms of not sentimentalizing, I would say the biggest place that I struggled was with the music. I actually tried three different composers before I found Andy Statman. I worked with composers who were extremely talented, were very experienced and were the best. But because they didn’t necessarily have a klezmer vocabulary like Andy did, what they were writing was too sweet and I just didn’t want to go near it. The music was finished literally at the fourteenth hour.
Could you talk about the process of getting permission from the synagogue to film the bar mitzvah? I let the family do the negotiating for me. And I don’t know if I could have filmed the bar mitzvah at all—or certainly not in the same way—if it wasn’t for this particular Reconstructionist community. I didn’t know that much about Reconstructionism but they have this really strong principle of values-based decision-making. They sit down as a group, weigh competing values and decide which value wins in the situation. There was the bar mitzvah committee, the ritual committee, the spirituality committee... All these committees met and the decision came down to keeping the Sabbath and not videotaping versus tikkun olam and improving the world. Ultimately they decided that, in this particular case, the good that they thought the movie could do—in terms of showing people how a community can be inclusive— outweighed violating the Sabbath this one time. So they made this one-time-only exception for me. But it was still sensitive: We actually had a whole area where people could sit if they didn’t want to be filmed. And every camera angle was approved by a rabbi who looked through the lens. We also had seven cameras shooting the bar mitzvah: one camera was allowed to move, one had to stay stationary, another had to be mounted…
Could you talk a little bit about your Jewish upbringing? I grew up in a family that is unconventionally reform. We belonged to a really reform synagogue because it was where my mother was the associate principal. We had Shabbat dinner. My mother had made Aliyah in the Sixties with this incredible Zionistic tie. So it was very Jewish without being necessarily observant.
One of the things that really impressed me about the film is that, on one hand, it is about a very special kid. On the other hand, it also addresses very abstract issues such as what it feels like to pray and what it’s like to feel a connection to God. How close do you think you came in terms of capturing the experience of praying? That was something I thought about a lot. How do you capture the experience of prayer which is, by definition, inexplicable and unknowable? I think I was most successful in trying to capture the community’s praying with Lior. Because half of what is going on is this circulating, buzzing love that everyone has for each other. There’s this energy that people feed off of Lior and that he is feeding back to them. And that exists very much in community and it happens to be a very physical experience—dancing, singing, crying, praying. So it’s hard not to get caught up in that. One thing that I do notice happening at film screenings and film festivals—but that I didn’t really think about when I was making the movie—is that, in watching the film together, the audience becomes part of Lior’s community and starts to mirror the way the community is acting on screen. They become really involved in Lior’s bar mitzvah, they really care about him. They are very eager to laugh with him. And I think the audience experiences this when they watch the movie in a full house. It is echoing, on some level, the experience of praying with Lior.
What do you think goes on when Lior is praying? What role did his mother [a rabbi who died of breast cancer when Lior was young] play in developing this love of praying? I think that his mother helped create these really early memories of loving to pray. She helped put it there in this really positive, enthusiastic way. I think, at this point though, this early impulse to pray has really transmuted. When I was shooting the movie, she had died seven years earlier. I think that she had planted a seed which kept growing. It was something that felt good, something that he could do, something that he could do well. All those positive associations with praying started with her.
So much of what the audience knows about Lior’s mother comes from the film’s use of home movies. At what point in the production process did this footage become part of the film? When I started making the film, all I knew was that Lior could pray like nobody’s business. I didn’t know anything about him as a person. Basically, I didn’t know anything that would have made this worthy of a film, really: I didn’t know that the siblings were articulate. I didn’t know the story of the community. And I certainly didn’t know there was a mother who had died and that there was home movie footage of her. It was only after I was working on it a little bit that the family gave me a whole bunch of VHS-C tapes (this was an old form of VHS where you need a special case to play it). Like with most families, these were messy home videos that, most of the time, the kids had shot of each other. I was shocked by all that footage of her. Sometimes when you’re working on a movie, you have your thesis. But you don’t necessarily know that it is true. So finding this footage helped affirm my hunches concerning the family and the way they had developed. At the same time though, it was really difficult working with that footage. I was really uncomfortable for a long time in terms of how to use it and how much to use. I didn’t want to exploit it in any way. And I was protective of Lior’s stepmother and of the family’s grief. So it was a long time before I really embraced the fact that I needed to address the mother in a significant way. I initially didn’t intend to. Also, the reason that a lot of that footage does exist is that she was in a program for mothers with breast cancer where they gave them video cameras so that the mothers could tape the kids and the kids could tape the mother. And without that program, I wouldn’t have most of that footage.
What gave you the courage to address the mother in a more significant way? I really wanted to tip toe around his mother’s death and the family’s grief. I also wanted to hit harder on Lior’s spirituality. But as I started showing cuts of the film to people, they were telling me that I shouldn’t hit the spirituality really hard because a lot of people don’t have any and it’s therefore hard to care. And then people asked me why I wasn’t dealing with the loss of the mother which, they pointed out, was the elephant in the room. So I got bolder. But it was hard: I questioned every cut—especially with the mom—to make sure there was nothing exploitive about it.
In the film, the father comments that the bar mitzvah is rather bittersweet because it will probably be the highlight of Lior’s life. Do you share that opinion? I did. I was worried about that. I still have a relationship with Lior and know that it’s not true. And that was a big reason why I shot the epilogue as opposed to just letting the movie end with the bar mitzvah. I think the bar mitzvah is a highlight—maybe even more so than for other kids—but Lior himself is not depressed. He does not feel like his golden years are behind him. He’s a happy guy. And he’s doing really well in high school. I’m quite sure that Lior will still have major achievements to come. I’m sure he’ll get married. I have no idea what’s going to come from Lior but it’s always something amazing. I’m not worried and I don’t think his family is so worried anymore either.
What led you to do an outreach campaign with the film? I always do a lot of research when I make a documentary. When I started making this film, I didn’t know how unusual Lior was: Are all people with down syndrome like Lior? So I started doing research by talking to people. As I talked to more and more people in the faith community, I learned that the situation is so embarrassingly bad. There’s so much heartbreak: People who feel a connection to a faith community often don’t feel accepted: There’s not a place for them to go, their kids don’t feel accepted. Often, parents will say after seeing the film, “gosh, I wish we had a community like that”. Or non-Jewish people will say, “you Jews are so good at this”. And that’s not true: This community in the film is really good at this, this family is really good at this. I guess this appealed to my sense of righteous indignation, especially because I have always been proud to be part of communities that championed marginalized individuals: Jews march for women’s rights, gay rights, immigrant rights, Darfur. But there is a huge population of people with disabilities: it’s supposedly fifty-four million Americans which has to be two million Jews, and where are these people? They’re not in our synagogues and so the hypocrisy of it struck me as well as the fact that it’s among us: it’s our neighbors and one day, probably us too. Another reason this struck me is that we’re all missing out. In another community, Lior might not be in that position. I certainly grew up missing out on praying with Lior. Most people miss out on praying with the Liors of the world.

1 comment:

Alan said...

I just read your interview re: your work, Praying with Lior; I've not yet seen this. The only film to which I could draw any parallel is "Best Boy" if you know that one. I am eager to see Lior. Do you have distribution in Canada, Montreal, Western Quebec?