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Ryan Mullins and Omar Majeed are two young filmmakers who work at the prolific, politically & socially-minded Montreal documentary company EyeSteelFilm. The company is well represented at Hot Docs this year, with  China Heavyweight , by Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze) as well as Ryan and Omar’s film, The Frog Princes.

The incredibly touching film follows a theatre troupe made up of developmentally disabled adults as they mount a production of “The Frog and the Princess.” I asked Ryan and Omar how they first got involved with the project: “The troupe is part of this organization called the Centre for Arts and Development, they’re based out of Concordia University,” Ryan tells me. “The director of that program, Lenore Vosberg, had a connection with our producer here at EyeSteelFilm, Mila Aung-Thwin, and through him got in touch with Omar and myself, and asked us if we wouldn’t mind coming out to see what they’re all about. It was a local story and it wasn’t asking much of us to just drive out to see what they were doing. We did, and we thought it was really interesting, we went a few more times and were hooked after that.”

Omar chimes in to say, “It’s a small program, and they’re always kind of struggling to keep it going, so I think they were hoping that some kind of exposure would highlight the very unique and important work that they’re doing. And initially, that made us a little skeptical, only because I wasn’t necessarily interested in doing a piece on just ‘a worthy program’. What I saw from the get-go was the potential for documenting real people struggling with real issues. It happened to be a really fascinating program. Once we saw that, we really started to connect with it.”

When the film begins, the largish group of participants seem comfortable with each other. As part of an early rehearsal, they play trust games (the kind where you’re supposed to allow yourself to fall backwards into someone’s arms) that I can’t imagine anyone finding easy to manage with a group of strangers, so I ask Ryan and Omar about how the programme works. “They’ve been going for about 16 years,” they tell me, “and they spend the last six months of each three year cycle on putting on a play. So that’s when we came in, but before that they’re already working with a group of about 20 what they call ‘clients’, training them in music, movement, drama. They’re familiar with themselves as a group and they’re building toward their graduation with this play.”

“Whether you’re abled or disabled, it doesn’t really matter, putting on a play brings great challenges in itself. So we started to see that this was really the process to follow, because it brings out everyone’s neurotic quirks and also gives them real obstacles to overcome. People reveal themselves in this process.” Ryan adds.

I remark on how amazing it was to see the journey that each character goes on, the obstacles that they each overcome. Many of them seem to really blossom over the course of the film. “It’s a very unique program”, Ryan tells me. “And what’s wonderful about them is they don’t skimp on time or attention. By the time the first day of rehearsals starts, everyone knows each other so well, that they can make those kinds of informed, therapeutic decisions. It is a really transformative experience for everyone involved.”

Omar and Ryan tell me that they shot the group starting in January of 2010, on the first day that the group met with Stephen Snow (the Director of Creative Arts Therapies at the Centre). They were there for the first session, and stayed through to the end. Everyone in the film seems remarkably comfortable in front of the camera, a fact which I mention to Omar and Ryan, asking whether it was a challenge to get anyone to agree to being filmed.

Omar says “We we were nervous about it to begin with, but they were really enthusiastic from day one that we film them.” Ryan says “I think when you make a documentary, you want to be like a fly-on-the-wall, but we realized that wasn’t going to happen, so we kind of involved ourselves a bit, and it was fine that they would talk to the camera or talk to us directly. At a certain point, once we got comfortable ourselves, we really felt we were part of the process. And I think in some ways they’re just a really talented bunch of performers. They all knew they had mad skills, and they wanted to show off.”

So really, Omar and Ryan were just providing another forum for them to showcase their talents – and there are plenty of talented actors, singers and comedians in the troupe. Since this was all filmed in 2010, I ask the directors whether they’ve kept in touch with the group, or with the centre. Omar tells me “the new group is getting close to doing their play and this year is equally fascinating. They always try to change it up. One thing that I really respect is that they take the art of what they do very seriously, so for Stephen it’s about keeping himself imaginatively engaged. The year that we were filming, he really wanted to do something that had an environmental message, and he brought that to the table and they brought what they brought to the table. And this year, they’re doing an ethnographic kind of project in which they’re getting people in the program to talk about their cultural and ethnic backgrounds and weave that into storytelling, which I think is fascinating, the intersection between all these labels. You’re part of the developmentally disabled population, but at the same time you have other labels, and how do these things intersect and inform each other. It’s great to see them pushing in that way. That one is going to be in June, and we’ll obviously be attending.

“As for the other group, we kept in touch, certainly. We wanted to have a screening just recently for everyone who was in the performance, and their friends and family. So we had a screening, and everybody came out. It was a really warm reunion, it was really touching. People continued to talk about how important that experience was for them. Ray Man is still living on his own.” I interrupt to ask whether he’s still with his girlfriend, another member of the troupe, and am told they may have fallen out, but apparently Ray Man’s never had problems with the ladies. Omar tells me “he and his group were kind of like the cool kids among the group. It was funny to observe those dynamics.” Every group has its cool kids.

“I’m amazed how much they bring up just how important that was to them.” Ryan tells me, when I ask them about the lasting impact of the program. “It’s easy for the caregivers and the institutions and those who document the process to feel like ‘hey, we’re doing something important’ but to hear them say it is different. I think the nicest thing we heard from Ray Man’s parents was from Ray’s father after the screening. He told us he’d learned something about his son from this film that he didn’t know before, and he was really grateful for that.”

I ask the two whether they have any final thoughts, or something they want to share with our readers about their film. “When we first started filming with the troupe, as outsiders we became really concerned with trying to understand each member of the group in terms of their disability”, Omar tells me. “We had a number of conversations like, ‘can you explain to us what this person has, what that person has’, and the people at the centre told us that was confidential. And I remember thinking, that’s really challenging. How are we going to understand all these different subjects in the film without understanding that? Of course the more time we spent with certain subjects, we did start to understand what issues they had. But it also really taught us something. That was not the focus of the film nor was it important in understanding a person. The program is designed to reach people with various disabilities, but we weren’t trying to get portray people through that lens, we were trying to transcend that. I think that’s really important for us not just as filmmakers but as people, to learn to appreciate other people’s talents and appreciate people for themselves.” A great thought to end on.

The Frog Princes screens on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 7:30 pm, on Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 4:45 pm and Saturday, May 5, 2012 at 9:45 pm. Check the Hot Docs website for more information.