Running a marathon is not for the faint of heart – the vast majority of people will never attempt to run one, let alone finish one. Now imagine completing a marathon without the use of your legs.
Bill, who is confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, has already completed 34 marathons in his life. He competes by riding his wheelchair backwards and pushing off with his legs. And now, he can add another achievement to his list – he is featured in a documentary about disabled athletes that is being produced as part of a collaborative Linkage partnership project entitled Media-Enabled Musketeers, implemented under the auspices of the US-Russia Social Expertise Exchange (SEE).
Media-Enabled Musketeers is a joint venture between Manhattan-based Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV) and Moscow’s Journalism Advancement and Support Center (JASC). These organizations combined their knowhow and contacts in order to connect two discrete populations across two distinct countries – reporters and people with disabilities in Russia and the US. The goal is not only to help people with disabilities tell their stories through the use of documentary techniques, but also to promote cultural understanding through mutually beneficial cooperation between Russia and the US.
The project gained momentum in January when nearly 50 participants from the Russian cities of Krasnoyarsk and Sergiev Posad braved the cold to attend hands-on documentary filmmaking seminars led by the co-founder of DCTV, Jon Alpert, an award-winning documentary filmmaker.
In Sergiev Posad the seminar started at an orphanage for deaf and blind children with a day-long training on the challenges of understanding disability. The following day participants met at a local TV station “Radonezhie,” where they had a chance to hold video cameras in their hands and work alongside professional reporters.
Alpert, who led the training, shared his own experiences and offered advice for the aspiring filmmakers. For example, Alpert suggested that, while recording, one should cover the red light on the video camera to put those who are being filmed at ease. Armed with their newly-acquired knowledge, the project’s musketeers took to the cold Russian streets to start filming their own stories.
Sergey Shiryaev, a journalist from the local newspaper Sergiev Vedomosti, initially came to the seminar to write a story about the events, but he was so captivated by the project that he decided to become a participant right then and there. “From everything that happened at the seminar, it seemed to me that the most important aspect was that the problem of disability is a problem of a society as a whole,” Sergey noted his observations. He is now working on a documentary about a Paralympic athlete from the Russian national team, Anastasia Mazur, and her blind students, who play Goalball - a specially designed sport for disabled people with either complete or partial loss of eyesight.
In the US, Alpert held a similar training seminar in New York City. Elena Zubareva, one of the project’s participants from the US side, attended the seminar and is now working on her own documentary film, entitled Unstoppable, which is about Bill the marathon runner and other members of Achilles International, an organization that empowers people with disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics.
“I always admired people with disabilities who found strength in themselves; who, in spite of everything, systematically partake in sports, conquer new heights, and, most of all, overcome their own inner barriers,” explained Elena her reason for choosing this subject for her documentary. She even followed Alpert’s advice to be in the center of the action when she decided to run alongside Bill during the New York Half-Marathon in order to truly understand Bill’s perspective.
So far, the project’s activities have demonstrated just how much work remains to be done in addressing issues of stereotypes, access and empowerment in both countries. In one particular instance, during a tour of the TV station Radonezhie, one wheelchair-bound participant had to take the extreme step of going down several fights of stairs and across the street just to use the restroom. The hope is that films produced as part of the Media-Enabled Musketeers project will shed more light on such challenges.
“Media can divide people, but it can also be a tool to fight for inclusion and create opportunities for people,” explained Jon Alpert his vision of the project’s broader impact.
Since the initial trainings, more than 60 participants have been diligently working on their documentaries. They also stay in regular contact with each other on Facebook and via video conference calls in order to discuss their projects and cheer each other on.
The documentaries will eventually appear at a film festival organized by Moscow’s Center of Documentary Film and on local television in both Russia and the US. Alpert hopes to eventually have the films shown on HBO in the US and 24DOC in Russia.
Through the Media Enabled Musketeers’ determination and commitment to their cause, Russian and American disabled citizens are finally finding their voices. Their hope is that by telling their stories, their fellow citizens will better understand their challenges, and hopefully all will work together so that the disabled may have the same opportunities as everyone else.