While Boston-based filmmaker Garrett Zevgetis has made several short films and worked for PBS’s FRONTLINE, Best and Most Beautiful Things is his feature-length debut. Yet he’s already been named one of “10 Filmmakers to Watch” by the Independent magazine: “Best and Most Beautiful Things is a portrait of a young woman’s journey to assert her identity and find her purpose outside of her disability. Shot over the course of 6 years, the film is an intimate view into a family’s struggles and reveals the obvious trust Zevgetis built with the film’s subjects.” Legally blind and on the autism spectrum, Michelle Smith has big dreams and proudly wears the badge of outcast. Searching for connection, she explores love and empowerment outside the limits of “normal,” including a provocative sexual awakening.
The film, which had its world premiere at the 2016 South by Southwest Film Festival and won Best of Fest at Superfest International Disability Film Festival, has its television premiere on Independent Lens on PBS January 2 at 10 pm [check local listings].
“This could have been a film that gawked at the intersectionality of Michelle’s various identities and made her into a sideshow attraction, but thankfully it does precisely the opposite,” wrote Substream. “Michelle may be different, but she is no less normal than the rest of us. Because being normal is bullsh–.”
Zevgetis took time out to talk to us about what inspired him to tell this young woman’s story and to illuminate the film’s message of “#HackNormal.”
Why did you make Best and Most Beautiful Things?
After working on a number of documentaries with very dark themes, I was looking for a project about something more positive in the world, and I Googled the word “beauty.” That search led me to the best thing I’ve read about beauty, a quote by Helen Keller, who attended Perkins School for the Blind [in Watertown, MA], very near where I live. So next I Googled “Perkins” and learned that people who are blind in America are an invisible demographic, with a 75% unemployment rate. It struck me that the only way we can change that statistic is to tell stories that humanize people who are blind.
I started volunteering at Perkins and, on my last day, a bubbly young student named Michelle Smith introduced herself to me. After a few minutes, I knew I could follow her anywhere, even into the darker corners of life, because her wise spirit and warmth and humor were universal and would never let her despair. At the same time, Kevin Bright, the hugely successful Executive Producer of Friends*, was also volunteering at Perkins, teaching filmmaking to Michelle’s class. He became a mentor and ultimately Executive Producer of this project, which made it possible.
After six years of filming, and some surprises along the way, I feel more strongly than ever that Michelle’s story illuminates our common humanity. It’s about coming of age and exploring who you are, discovering your individuality when others may assign you a label to exclude you. We wanted to show without pity that every person has unique talents and abilities to contribute to our diverse and beautiful world.
How did you gain the trust of Michelle and the other people close to her?
When I was in grad school, I heard the Maysles brothers say that the most important thing was to convince your subjects that you will never betray them. So I did that by being as forthright and honest as I could with them about the process. I tried to relate to them as collaborators, not just subjects. I also gained trust by putting in the time, many hours of phone calls and visits off-camera. And by making sure they knew their well-being and dignity were always more important to me than any film that would come from this.
What surprised you the most as you got to know Michelle while filming?
That she was more intelligent than me by a wide margin. Michelle’s ability to recall lyrics and dialogue and her deep insights about life consistently surprised me. However, I still saw myself as a mentor to her because I simply have more life experience. You might say that I learned from Michelle’s IQ and she learned from my EQ. Michelle’s deep intelligence affected me in two ways. One is that I quickly determined I needed to be as transparent as possible about my filmmaking process otherwise she would sniff it out right away and I could lose her trust. And the other thing it taught me was to think harder about neurodiversity. How could I ever be condescending to Michelle when I knew that she’s actually smarter than I am? Many people are still condescending to her because she’s not neurotypical and she doesn’t fit into a social box. But that’s their problem, not Michelle’s.
And what were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?
It took 6 years to make, so finding a good ending was a challenge. I had to have faith. My steep learning curve as a first-time feature filmmaker was challenging, as was building the right team (which helped even out that curve). Oh, and I had no money!
Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
Michelle and her mom Julie traveled to every film festival and we had amazing Q&As with lots of insight and emotion. We heard from mothers who are inspired by Michelle’s mom being brave enough to not shelter Michelle. We heard from young people who have felt “different” and are inspired by Michelle’s message of unlearning normal. (#HackNormal). We hear from people who have disabilities that are inspired by Michelle celebrating her sexuality. There have been tears and lots of hugs after our screenings.
Could you talk more about that, about #HackNormal? What is it, what does it mean and what can everyone learn from it?
When I was in the military it was normal to be kicked out if you were gay. When I was a kid it was normal to not wear your seatbelt and to smoke on planes. I remember my mom telling me when she was a kid her parents told her it was normal to eat the fat off a steak because it was healthy. Our collective ideas about “normal” can be downright dangerous and thus must consistently be challenged. #HackNormal: The most dangerous and deep rooted normality might be hegemonic masculinity.
When Michelle was growing up she was forced to be an outsider/outcast at school. She was legally blind and on the spectrum and not deemed “normal.” She could have fallen into despair and resentment but, instead, she did something amazing, she slowly came to the realization that her outsider status liberated her from the societal constraints of “normal.” Michelle became empowered from the inside out and now she’s free to buy into our social contract on her terms.
Had you any experiences yourself growing up with disabled friends or family? If so, do you think attitudes and open-mindedness from so-called “normal” people have changed since then?
I did not have any experience with disabled people growing up and I’m guessing that’s because many of them were isolated at home collecting disability as they are now. I don’t think attitudes have changed but I have hope nonetheless. Things will change when society views this as a diversity issue. Thankfully it’s normal now for businesses to view diversity in gender, race, sexual orientation as a strength. People with disabilities (different abilities) should be part of that mix as well because they bring a different world view. We must change the paradigm from thinking that we are accommodating people with disabilities to the realization that they will enrich our lives at home and at work. And by the way, most of us will be disabled at some point in our lives.
Some of Michelle’s explorations include the BDSM community and with sexuality — all of which are part of our worlds but something that Americans are often uncomfortable talking about and seeing others explore. Knowing that, could you talk about how you wanted to approach that subject for the film?
I didn’t learn of Michelle’s explorations into BDSM until two years into the project. And, at first, I had no idea how to approach it or address it… At that point Michelle had graduated and she was living at home isolated in her bedroom at her parents’ house. In the disability world they call this “falling off the cliff” when young people age out of the system.
After Michelle told me about her lifestyle I was talking to one of our producers, Ariana Garfinkel, and she said, “It sounds like she found community.” And I said, “Wow, you’re exactly right!” Michelle had found an accepting community and that’s a beautiful thing.
But there was one more aspect that intrigued me even more. Like others with a disability, Michelle is forced to adapt to an ableist society that most often is not fully accessible or enlightened, and thus she’s usually trying to catch up to the sighted world. However, in the case of sexuality, Michelle actually leap-frogged most of us in society with her enlightenment and awareness. She is well aware of our collective hang-ups and thus she felt true and utter empowerment in her explorations. Which is another beautiful thing if you ask me.
You mentioned the Maysles brothers — what are some other documentary filmmakers and films that were an influence on you, that were in your head as you made this film?
One of the films that made me want to pursue documentary is called War/Dance. It’s by Sean and Andrea Fine, along with Jeff Consiglio who edited the film. When we needed an editor for this film I googled Jeff’s name and email and sent him some footage with a hope and a prayer. He was immediately taken by Michelle and joined the project! War/Dance taught me that you can make a compelling and important documentary that feels like an entertaining fiction narrative.
Another huge influence was Bombay Beach by Alma Har’el. Har’el achieves a non-judgemental intimacy that I’d never seen before. She breaks down the walls between filmmaker and subject and does it all in a visually expressive way. I showed the film to our two amazing DP’s Sarah Ginsburg and Jordan Salvatoriello as inspiration and I think it worked! Music is also a vital ingredient of Har’el’s film and so we made it our mission to find a great composer. We exceeded our own expectations when Tyler Strickland joined our team. Bombay Beach is not a social issue film, it doesn’t impart any lessons. And yet you feel transformed after watching it. You feel more human.
My favorite filmmaker is [Akira] Kurosawa. He made me feel that magic spell of movies by creating a cinematic experience. I believe he was the first to point the camera directly to the sun and thus you’ll see about three sun shots in our movie!
What about three of your favorite non-documentary films?
Ikiru (“To Live”; Kurosawa), Braveheart, Before Sunrise.
Was there anything you filmed for Best and Most Beautiful Things you wish you could’ve included but didn’t make final cut?
We filmed a scene at Disney World when Michelle and her family traveled there. It might have been the most beautiful scene in the film but it didn’t serve the story enough to stay in. Heartbreaking. It will be a DVD extra though! And it’s important to point out that people who like the Independent Lens version of our film can find the [expanded] feature version at our website.
Last but not least, what projects are you working on next?
The big idea now is to try to keep our team together. On Best and Most Beautiful Things each of us was like a vital organ that if taken away would kill the organism. Our team is lead by our Executive Producers Kevin and Claudia Bright. We are presently researching a film on the school to prison pipeline. And also a film that looks at things from the perspective of the bully at a high school in Central MA. She was a bully until the girl she bullied took her own life. This subject is important to us because one of the young girls Michelle talks to in our film later took her own life because of bullying and they all went to the same school.
Whichever project I work on will be focused at its core on what is right in the world. I’m still on a search for hope and beauty and I’m taking a camera with me.
*For more on how Friends producer Kevin Bright became a part of this project, read this illuminating Los Angeles Times piece: “Kevin Bright’s very non-Central Perk post-show journey.”