Jabberwocky Takes Its Show on the Road: New Film Debuts to Ovations in Toronto
How's Your News? Offbeat Movie Draws Raves
By TOM DUNLOP
TORONTO, ONTARIO - It all began in the summer of 1993 when Sean Costello, a short man with red hair and Down syndrome, wandered onto a playing field with a microphone and a cameraman and, for the purposes of a video class, began asking his fellow campers a single question - "How's your sports?" - right in the middle of a game of kickball.
Nobody could have dreamed of it then, and nobody associated with the movie could quite believe it even as it was happening, but a few days ago a feature-length documentary film - a film that grew out of those first interviews, taped on the grounds of Camp Jabberwocky in Vineyard Haven eight years ago - played to sold-out houses at the Toronto International Film Festival which, with Cannes and Sundance, is one of the three most prestigious in the world.
The film, How's Your News?, is a cross-country experiment in television journalism for the campers of Jabberwocky, who are disabled by cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, spina bifida, autism, brain injuries and many other problems, subtle and overt. The movie is also a test of the way citizens meet and deal with people with mental and physical handicaps across America.
At its heart, How's Your News? turns the tables on society, because the microphone and camera put the campers in an unprecedented position of authority. The people they talk with try hard to do and say what television has taught them to do and say during an interview, but the questions from the campers are often too direct, incongruous or unintelligible to deal with in a conventional way. In this world, it is the interviewee, not the interviewer, who is handicapped.
It is a moving, funny and at moments disturbing film. As The Festival Daily put it on the night the movie first played in Toronto:
"Director Arthur Bradford's How's Your News? takes a filmmaking convention - the road movie - and, without artifice or pretension, recaptures its faded charms. Its participants are five amateur video reporters whose disabilities ranging from severe spastic cerebral palsy to Down's syndrome. They take off from New Hampshire and head for California in a motor home with no story, no mission and no mandate other than to have fun and ask total strangers the vaguely familiar but somehow surreal question: ‘How's Your News?' "
In other words, it's nothing more than what Jabberwocky campers and counselors have been doing all across Martha's Vineyard with their microphones and camcorders for most of the last decade - except that with the financing of Hollywood producers and the help of an authentic documentary film crew, an Island exercise was able to grow into a transcontinental odyssey.
From New Haven to Los Angeles, the campers met and interviewed streetcorner evangelizers, hitchhikers, alligator wranglers, migrant workers, ranchers, the homeless and television stars. The trip took 18 days, and the shoot lasted a little less than a month during the fall of 1999.
The campers, counselors and crew came home with an 82-minute film that will air on the Cinemax Reel Life series in the spring, play the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam in November, and show at the Screening Room in New York city between Oct. 16 and 23 as part of the HBO Frame by Frame series. This last screening will qualify it for an Academy Award nomination in the documentary category.
The five campers - Bobby Bird, Susan Harrington, Larry Perry, Ronnie Simonsen and Mr. Costello, all veterans of Jabberwocky - deal with an array of difficulties both physical and mental, some mild and some profound, but after years of practice across the Vineyard and New England and now the country, they've learned how to get people to show their true selves on camera. Most of the campers were chosen because they are bold, gregarious, self-promotional people. Mr. Costello, more shy and quiet than the rest, was chosen in part because the microphone picks up the things he often mutters to himself about how exasperating or idiotic the people are whom he's just talked to - a trait he exhibited in those very first interviews on the kickball field.
From their homes across New England, the campers and most of the counselors who made the film met in Sherborn on the evening of Sept. 6 and set out that night in two vans for Toronto. The movie was shown twice, at a cineplex in the heart of town on Sept. 7, the night of their arrival, and again on Sept. 9 at the Royal Ontario Museum. All told, more than 700 people saw the film, whistling, cheering and giving standing ovations at the end of both performances.
In raucous sessions after both screenings, the campers answered questions, handed out T-shirts and CDs and, with the counselors breaking out guitars, led both audiences in singalongs from a soundtrack they'd written themselves. They were treated like journalists and movie stars, asked for interviews and autographs, and dealt with in unguarded terms - much as they are on the Island during the summer, but less often on the mainland during the rest of the year.
One of the questions had to do with whether the campers felt they were being treated with respect by the audience when it laughed at some parts of the film. Mr. Bradford, the director, answered for Larry Perry, 58, who has attended Jabberwocky since its first summer in 1953. Mr. Perry's body and voice are severely knotted up by cerebral palsy.
"That was a good question you asked about the respect," Mr. Bradford said, "because we really wanted to make sure they felt proud of the movie, and also the families of the people in the movie. Larry lives with his parents, and they were really unsure about what to make of this movie before they saw it. I remember Larry's parents both thinking, ‘How can Larry be a news reporter?' And so it was a really great experience having Larry with his parents watching the movie and the scenes in which he did the interviews. Afterwards, his parents really loved the movie and they asked Larry if he liked the movie, and he was very enthusiastic about it. I'm trying to speak for you, Larry, if that's okay."
For a group accustomed to spending a few weeks each summer living on a hilly campus in the woods of Vineyard Haven, venturing out each day to meet the sometimes enormous challenges of riding horses, swimming, windsurfing or rehearsing a musical, this weekend of hoopla on an international scale in Canada was - to quote Monty Python, a spiritual lodestar to the camp - something completely different.
The campers were interviewed for web sites and newspapers in rooms on the upper floors of the Inter-Continental Hotel, just as Steve Martin and Denzel Washington were doing down the hall. They went out onto Bloor street to be photographed in front of the How's Your News? van for Premier magazine, and gave a concert for 200 people at Lee's Palace, a club where Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Barenaked Ladies have all played.
The whole escapade happened in the first weekend of the festival, and the group got in and out of Toronto before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington and the plane crash in Pennsylvania stopped all screenings for a day and deadened the spirit of the festival during its final week.
The movie got its start at Camp Jabberwocky, founded 48 summers ago by Helen Lamb, an Englishwoman who came to the United States with her three small children after the death of her husband in 1950. Mrs. Lamb was trained in speech pathology and in America worked for the old Fall River Cerebral Palsy Training Center. In summer she brought her children to the Vineyard, where her family had long owned two homes in Oak Bluffs.
Mrs. Lamb, now 88, was a determined woman, impatient with the way the Fall River center mismanaged the care and education of its charges. She was angered, too, by the way disabled children languished when they went home from the clinic. To gain them - and their parents - a few weeks of relief during the heat of the summer, she decided to start a summer camp on Martha's Vineyard. In 1953 the first six campers came to stay at Happy Days, a family cottage on the Camp Ground in Oak Bluffs. The camp would eventually move to its campus of 14 acres not far from downtown Vineyard Haven and take the name Jabberwocky from the Lewis Carroll poem.
Martha's Vineyard embraced the camp from the start, providing it with free food, tickets on the ferries, gasoline and invitations to special events. Then as now, the camp was run entirely on a volunteer basis. No counselor has ever been paid to work at Jabberwocky, and none of the six who traveled with the campers, caring for them as they do at the camp, was paid to make the film. Jabberwocky is now considered the oldest sleepover summer camp for the handicapped in North America. It is best known to many Vineyarders for the jangling and hooting way it marches and rolls through the streets of Edgartown in the Fourth of July parade.
Arthur Bradford became a counselor at the camp in the summer of 1993. For his senior project at Yale, he produced a weekly series for public access television called Street TV. He asked the citizens of New Haven about their lives and their dreams. He interviewed addicts recovering at a methadone clinic next door to his home. When he went to Jabberwocky that summer, he brought his camera, taught a video class and got the campers to start interviewing each other as if they were TV reporters.
This crew, growing bolder in the role of on-camera journalists, soon moved out onto the streets of Vineyard Haven, buttonholing passersby. The street interviews evolved into a half-hour documentary about the camp, tapes of which found their way to Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who in 1995 were making a five-minute film that would set the stage for the animated series South Park on the cable channel Comedy Central. Mr. Parker and Mr. Stone offered to finance a How's Your News? road trip across New England. That film, about 30 minutes long, did well at underground film festivals in Chicago, Montreal and New York during the summer of 1999 and attracted the attention of John Pierson at Grainy Pictures, who had backed the first film of Spike Lee as well as the documentaries Roger and Me and The Thin Blue Line. Mr. Pierson and the South Park creators agreed to finance the feature-length documentary shown this month in Toronto.
The campers and counselors set out from New England in the fall of 1999. With Doug Stone, a producer, and P.H. O'Brien, director of photography, they crossed the country in a little less than three weeks, shooting the interviews on digital video and the travel on film. For certain sequences, they set a tiny video camera and microphone in a pair of eyeglasses to record how people regarded - or disregarded - the campers from their own perspective.
The crew traveled through New York, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and southern California. They interviewed auctioneers at a cattle sale in Amarillo, patrons at a bar threatened with closure in Nashville, showgirls in Las Vegas, and palm readers and a homeless salesman of marijuana pipes on the shorefront boulevards of Venice Beach. It is an astounding journey, with a start that begins on a kickball field in Vineyard Haven, eight years before the first images of this movie appear on the screen.
"We didn't know if we would make it, literally," Mr. Bradford told an interviewer for filmfestivals.com after the first screening. "Traveling with these people was not easy. Once we made it across the country with this group of people, and made this movie, and now here we are at the Toronto Film Festival showing it to people - we all feel a little more confident about ourselves. We really can do just about anything."