In honor of #JDAIM18, and over a decade since making the film Praying With Lior, a documentary about a spiritual and religiously connected boy with Down syndrome as he approaches his Bar Mitzvah, filmmaker Ilana Trachtman reflects on the legacy of that project.
While parents are never supposed to admit to having a favorite, let alone publish such a thing on the Internet, I must admit that Praying with Lior is my favorite of my films.
Making the film was laborious and long, but it felt like the Universe had a hand on my back the whole time, pushing the movie along. For one thing, meeting Lior was a revelation. Certainly for me personally and for my life’s journey, but as a filmmaker, I couldn’t have asked for a better subject. Lior and his family were wholly cooperative, generous, honest, brave, thoughtful, smart, and funny. They let me and my camera into their lives, warts and all, never censoring themselves or worrying about personal, professional, social, or political correctness. The nuances of their story, unknown to me when I started filming, are emotionally resonant and narratively interesting. Lior’s very nature is cinematic: thoughts show up on his face, and it didn’t hurt that he is great-looking.
Love for Lior inspired many people to agree to be interviewed, to bend rules for the sake of the film, and to support the film financially. And when it was finally completed, Praying with Lior was received the same way, far beyond anyone’s expectations. Though the topic wasn’t one that tends to be popular, the film won six Audience Awards for Best Documentary, was a Critic’s Pick of the New York Times and other papers, and sold out on its opening weekend in the theater. Today, 11 years after the film’s festival premiere, I still receive requests for screenings and DVD’s and emails about how it affected a viewer.
But perhaps the most important outcome is this: I was moved to make a film about Lior because I had never seen anyone pray like him, or anyone with Down syndrome at shul, let alone having a Bar Mitzvah. Today, those are much more commonplace occurrences; if I met a twelve year-old Lior today, in 2018, I doubt I would have made the movie.
The incredible work of groups like Matan, Tikvah, Gateways, and many others, as well as the impact of Praying with Lior, have made the Bar Mitzvah of a boy with Down syndrome no big deal. Ten years ago, at least once a year, every local Jewish paper would publish a lovely human-interest story about a “special needs Bar Mitzvah.” Today, those stories rarely get published, because Inclusion is now on the agenda for so many synagogues and schools. We haven’t finished the work, but we’ve moved the needle. For a film, that’s the best ending possible.
—Ilana Trachtman, producer, writer, director, Ruby Pictures, Inc.
More to Consider:
Ain’t No Back to a Merry-Go-Round (Ilana’s current work-in-progress)
Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month: Lior’s Story (Jewish Philly)