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Becoming Bulletproof

by on October 19, 2014
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"Becoming Bulletproof" (2014), an official selection for Documentary Feature at the Heartland Film Festival.

“Becoming Bulletproof” makes its Heartland Film Festival debut today, October 19th, at AMC Castleton at 4:15 PM.  Zeno founder Peter Halby is scheduled to attend.  To see all showtimes for “Becoming Bulletproof,” click here.

For complete Heartland Film Festival showtimes, click here.

One of the goals of the Heartland Film Festival is to present new movies that highlight the power of film to inspire and uplift. It is little wonder then that so many strong documentaries find their way to the big screens during the Festival’s run every October. Documentary chooses the most inspiring and fascinating subjects possible, the people and events we see around us every day. “Becoming Bulletproof,” an official selection in the Documentary Feature category, focuses on an actors’ camp that brings together differently abled individuals to make a film and, hopefully, form lifelong bonds of friendship and understanding.

The main subject of the documentary is 29-year-old Atlanta native A.J. Murray, who has cerebral palsy. A.J. lives at home with his mother, Cynthia, and in the early going, the film shows the hardships of everyday life that A.J. and Cynthia go through. A.J.’s disability physically impairs him to a great degree, and his mother must attend to him by lifting him from his bed to his wheelchair, dressing him and feeding him. While cerebral palsy has slowed his speech, his mind is quick. A.J. is friendly and upbeat, and has a passion for movies and dreams of being an actor. So it is thrilling for A.J. when he finds out he has been invited to join the Zeno Mountain Farm’s film camp. Although it is a dream come true, A.J. shows remarkable self-awareness when he states that “I do not want pity because I have a disability, I just want to be understood. I want disability to have a seat at the table in pop culture.”

It’s that optimistic but realistic worldview that really drives this film and informs the philosophy behind Zeno Mountain Farm, the organization that runs the camp. Zeno aims to build a community of friends who share a mutual passion for film no matter their level of ability, as opposed to bringing paying clients and staff together in a financially fueled experience. None of the people involved, whether able-bodied or disabled, pays to be a part of the camp. The campers are together because they choose to be, not because they are being paid to do so. It’s a unique experience for everyone involved, as able-bodied actors, producers and directors find themselves paired with disabled individuals and learn how to assist them, work with them and, most importantly, understand them. As one of the producers states in the film, it is “a social experiment in extreme diversity.”

Scenes from movie within the movie, a  western titled “Bulletproof Jackson,” are interwoven with behind-the-scenes, on-set footage as well as setpiece interviews with various members of the camp. To its credit, “Becoming Bulletproof” is often “just” a documentary about people making a movie. The film shows the hard work that goes into the magic of movies; struggles with memorizing lines, blocking scenes, technical difficulties, the boredom and joking around that come with waiting around for setups to be completed. Throughout, the viewer gets a good sense of the camaraderie that goes into any theatrical production. The issues of disability are only acknowledged on set in the most practical of terms; everyone is there to get the job done to the best of their ability, and they work as a team to do so. No one is pandered to or given a pass. The cast and crew poke, push and prod much like you’d expect any family or group of co-workers. Disabled and able-bodied people both give as good as they get, and seem to have a good time doing it.

It’s this candid tone that helps set this documentary apart. Most depictions of disabled persons in film and television tend to glamorize the inspirational and uplifting elements of their story and unintentionally render them one-dimensional, marginalized caricatures. Despite (hopefully) noble intentions, Hollywood films like “I Am Sam” can be insultingly manipulative tearjerkers that avoid delving too deeply into the harsh realities that come with being disabled. While “Bulletproof” is not graphic by any means, it presents some situations where tough questions are at least acknowledged and not avoided. A.J. speaks frankly about the difficulties of sexuality for a person with cerebral palsy living with his mother.

In another revealing and humanizing scene Judy, a 53-year old woman with cerebral palsy, is proposed to by her boyfriend. It’s a happy moment, but in an interview later, she confides to her closest friend on set that while she loves her boyfriend, she’s not “in love” with him. It’s a refreshingly dishy moment of “real talk” between girlfriends that is 180 degrees from the sometimes naïve depictions of romantic love between disabled persons of which Hollywood is so fond. There’s no fairy tale love story or Hallmark moment between them, just two women with real-life experience talking about the ups and downs of relationships.

Make no mistake: This is definitely a “feel-good” film. There are the expected beats of drama and tension, and the film builds to a satisfying emotional climax that will warm the heart and wet the eyes. But those moments of frankness and vulnerability in the mix that elevate the film above a schmaltzy, public service announcement documentary. A.J. may be a dreamer with a huge heart, but he’s grounded as well, saying at one point “I know I’ll never play a lead detective on ‘Law & Order.’ But I want to be the guy they call when they need someone to play someone with cerebral palsy.”

In a powerful moment near the end of the film, an emotional A.J. says, “At camp I feel significance, dignity and purpose.” Those are the very same qualities that make “Becoming Bulletproof” an eminently worthwhile feature to experience this year at the Heartland Film Festival.

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