Three feet tall and rising; a classroom of two and three year olds is buzzing. The New York Child Resource Centers in the south Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn offer early intervention services for children diagnosed on the autism spectrum. I visited the school once in March, then again in May, meeting with the owners and principals, couple Michelle and Dr. Fred Weinberg. Together we brainstormed potential stories for Bye, the documentary that would eventually become my entry into Cinereach’s Reach Film Fellowship. Michelle joked there were a million stories within the classroom.
In those two short months separating our visits, there was visible development and learning; kids now saying their first words, some transitioning out of special education into traditional kindergarten classrooms. In October, as I returned to the school, I struggled to choose one perspective as my focus for the film: whose angle on this story provides the best frame? There are Principals Michelle and Fred, there are the therapists who guide the students, there are the kids themselves (some of whom are recently diagnosed and are new to the classroom). How do I decide which will work best within the time constraints of a 5-10 minute piece? I know I can’t follow them all.
In my last short doc, specificity of perspective was a problem. I was lucky enough to travel to South Africa and co-direct a documentary about the role of protest music in the current struggle against HIV. We shot for forty-one days, collecting over one-hundred and fifty hours of footage. While in production, these numbers were confidence boosters. We followed fifteen different characters but only for three days each. A part of me felt that there must be something buried within that large amount of footage that would give us a compelling narrative – each of the MiniDV tapes like little bricks in a foundation. I found out in the editing room, however, that too much footage, covering too much ground, can sink a project. The overwhelming weight of hundreds of tapes made a final cut seem impossible. Our content was extensive, but didn’t go quite deep enough into any one storyline or character to build the kind of story I had hoped for.
Through the Reach Fellowship I was lucky enough to be matched with Mad Hot Ballroom Director Marilyn Agrelo (my mentor) and Yoni Brook (consulting producer of RFF and a Cinereach grantee for his films Bronx Princess and A Son’s Sacrifice). These two have helped me narrow my focus by challenging me to write a defining statement for the film; part artist statement, part hypothesis. This statement should guide my focus as I pick and pursue an angle into the world I have chosen to tell a story about. I made more visits to both centers and spent time observing therapy in action – wrestling all along to find a simple phrase or question that could guide my efforts to capture the action. My first attempts were oversimplifications: Was this a drama about the intersection of poverty and autism? Was this a political story about families fighting for educational rights for kids on the spectrum? Although valid questions, they are very broad, too much for a ten minute cut. I could already see the stacks of MiniDV tapes piling up.
Part of the Reach Fellowship includes meetings with advisors from different facets of the film business and getting their perspectives. One evening, after I had spent a day at the school, still unsure of who my main characters were, all of the fellows met with Cinematographer Michael Simmonds at the Cinereach offices. One of his main points of advice was to emphasize the importance of specificity, being economical with our choice of shots when covering a scene. He explained how simple, specific shots expressing simple ideas are the best building blocks for communicating larger, very complex ideas. (I’m butchering this, but he used the example of communicating a story about a baker’s wife cheating on her husband. To convey it, all you need is 1) shot of bed rocking 2) shot of waiting butcher 3) shot of wife, meeting husband, disheveled clothes.)
During our conversation with Mike, I began thinking about what types of situations would allow me to collect the simple building blocks of my story. What was the most basic and most interesting thing I could capture that would communicate a compelling, larger idea – one that reflected why I was drawn to this subject to begin with. It then struck me that the purest and most essential moments I could capture would be those of daily learning and social interaction between the kids during their first introduction to the school environment.
For the autism populations in Brooklyn and the Bronx who are so scattered and sometimes isolated by stigma or because they are undiagnosed, this classroom serves as a rare chance to interact with peers. This is one of the most essential things they gain from being at the schools, and is also a human and relatable need audiences will immediately identify with.
This guided me towards my first formal attempt at a defining statement: These kids deserve the same chance at being in a classroom as everyone else. Scenes that show that can be the building blocks of my film. The majority of my footage for the doc should come from material captured within the classroom and show how the rare, early intervention services Michelle and Fred’s unique schools provide are life changing for these students.
Now days away from starting principal photography, I feel armed with my defining statement. The process of struggling to define it is extremely helpful in establishing a structure and distinguishing the excellent scenes from the great. The statement reminds me what is at the core of this story, keeping me specific about what scenes we shoot, but at the same time open to surprises. Coming up soon, our first test shoot. My DP, Ivaylo Getov, and my sound mixer, Shawn Axman, will do a two-day trial shoot in the classroom to test our setups, then my editor Andrew Siwoff begins cutting. In our first sequence, we will document the arrival of a new student and the class’ reaction.
2010 RFF Fellow Anthony Morrison (mentored by Marilyn Agrelo) studied film at NYU. In 2006 he co-directed Body Soldiers, a documentary about the role of protest music in fighting HIV in South Africa, winner of a production grant from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Recently, he worked as a researcher for This Is Not A Robbery, by Andrea Lauren Productions, which premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival. In his RFF Film, Bye, a class of two-year-olds faces opportunities and challenges at a school for previously undocumented autistic kids.