Independent Lens spoke with director Eric Neudel about his film Lives Worth Living, which follows the formation and journey of the disability rights movement through the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The movement scored one of the most significant civil rights victories in American history.
Here, Neudel discusses his inspiration for the film, as well as the challenges he faced as a filmmaker. (Since this interview with Neudel, Fred Fay passed away.)
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope this film helps others to gather the courage to fight for their rights.
What led you to make this film?
The minute I met Fred Fay in 2005 I knew I wanted to make a film about him. Fred is a remarkable person, a quadriplegic who has lived on a wheel bed since 1981. As we became friends he told me an intriguing story about the disability rights movement. I was amazed that such a struggle had even taken place. In late 2007 he became very ill. When Fred recovered, I thought the time was right to record what I could of his story. Through this process, he introduced me to dozens of his fellow activists. The film just blossomed after that.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
The most difficult challenge was finding a way to tell a concise, coherent and compelling story without using a narrator — an element I felt would put me in the position of speaking for people who by all rights needed to speak for themselves. In the end, we crafted a mosaic using many voices to tell one story.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
Fred Fay trusted me. The respect that other activists had for him spilled onto me. I thoroughly studied the people I chose to interview and learned small details about their lives. When I eventually interviewed them, I would use these details in my questions. This sense of detail often surprised them, brought back memories, and connected me to them.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
There could never be enough dramatic space in one program for the thousands of people who led the disability rights movement. We had to omit dozens of important activists and drop several characters we had interviewed. We also dropped several good scenes because they moved the film away from the main story. I see this as a truth of storytelling: too many characters, too many departures, and the story stops.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
The scene with Senators Tom Harkin and Ted Kennedy speaking after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This scene remind us of the range of the disability experience. These two powerful men convey their pain at having witnessed prejudice first hand. Even the mighty have to fight through their own losses and the stigma of disability.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The few people who have seen the finished version of this film have cried. This audience, however, is a skewed sample. Some of the viewers are characters in the film. Some are their relatives. Their feedback has been wonderful and they are genuinely excited.
The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
I love solving the puzzle of a film. This process is a lot of fun. I bring this enjoyment to the hope that I can make a difference – even if it’s just in a small way.
Why did you choose to present your film on PBS?
I had worked in public television for many years and felt that PBS could offer the best opportunity to reach the audience of people who live with disability everyday — tens of millions of people. I think there is a hunger for this program within the disability community and, in return, a unique opportunity for PBS to capture this audience.
What do you remember most about making the film?
Mostly what I remember is lugging bags through airports and stuffing them into small rental cars. We often slept and lived in friends’ apartments — sometimes in deplorable conditions. We complained a lot about dust balls and frightening bathrooms, but we loved our lives during it all.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I didn’t repair my house or do much gardening. I stopped my writing projects and nearly abandoned my still camera.
What are your three favorite films?
To Kill A Mockingbird (director Robert Mulligan), Casablanca (Michael Curtiz), Happy New Year (Claude Lelouch).
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Be aware that your efforts to describe your idea will almost certainly be misunderstood. This misunderstanding is very useful. It will force you to sharpen your own thinking. Do the extra work to be as simple and clear as possible. Be aware that you will have numerous ups and downs. Don’t linger at either extreme. Just hang in there and keep working. Find a good partner who will absorb some the rejection you will encounter along the way and help you understand what the rejection signifies.
What fuels and sustains you when you’re making a film?
Humble pie seems like the figurative answer. But in the spirit of being literal: Japanese food.