Originally created 05/24/04

Film festival offers happiness hints from the disabled



NEW YORK -- A documentary director whose film was picked up by HBO says he can understand why some people might be hesitant to attend a film festival this weekend spotlighting men and women with Down syndrome, autism and other disabilities.

The director, Arthur Bradford, concedes that he himself felt uneasy a dozen years ago before he first worked at a camp for people with disabilities.

"I thought it would be kind of depressing," he says.

But the lessons he learned about life, happiness and making the best out of difficult circumstances inspired him to return to the camp every year and to make a 2002 documentary, "How's Your News?"

The 83-minute film follows five people with mental or physical disabilities, enlisted to interview everyday people they met in such places as alligator farms in Arkansas; bars in Nashville, Tenn.; and the Grand Canyon.

"How's Your News?," which already aired on HBO and will be released on DVD this summer, is among 20 films to be shown Saturday and Sunday at the Sprout Film Festival at the New York University Cantor Film Center.

Other featured documentaries include "Bravo Gloria," directed by Arlene Alda, wife of director/actor Alan Alda, and "The Collector of Bedford Street," which was nominated for an Oscar last year after director Alice Elliott filmed how a community adjusted to Larry Selman, a 59-year-old neighbor with developmental disabilities.

Also to be featured is a 2002 Israel documentary, "My Four Children," about a woman who lost a child in a terrorist attack only to find hope when she overcame family opposition to raise four abandoned children who have Down syndrome.

A package of four films Saturday afternoon focus on autism. "The Autism Puzzle," a 2003 United Kingdom documentary, tells the history of autism and current research into its cause, treatment and prevalence. "Hillbilly Eyes" explores the world of a profoundly autistic boy who has most loved one thing, country music.

Anthony Di Salvo, the festival's founder, said about 600 people attended the first event last year when about 15 films were aired on one day. This year, a second day was added.

"It's a hard sell. That's why we started the festival. People do not feel comfortable seeing developmentally disabled people on the screen," he said.

Yet he said moviegoers find wisdom in the films, which feature people with disabilities rather than actors or actresses imitating them.

And it's not just the audience who benefits: One developmentally disabled actor, 50-year-old Seth Ehrlich, said his experience acting in a festival film, "The Social Club," has made him happier.

"I feel like I've accomplished something when I act," he said in a telephone interview. "The more I do it, the better I become at it."

Di Salvo said the festival grew out of "Sprout," a nonprofit organization he formed 25 years ago to provide vacations for the developmentally disabled.

The Manhattan-based organization once served just a few, but has grown to more than 2,000 clients, including hundreds who attend "Sproutstock," an annual weekend festival in the Catskills.

Di Salvo admits he was scared 25 years ago when he first confronted people he knew little about. He thought an excursion would be a disaster when a group went apple picking only to find that a wind storm had knocked all the apples off the trees.

One man on the trip said his mother had always told him to make the most of it when things are down. So they played catch and visited an outdoor food market.

"They were so grateful going on an apple picking trip where there were no apples. From then on, it's been an amazing experience," Di Salvo said.