Lives Worth Living Director Eric Neudel: Many Voices, One Purpose

Eric Neudel

Eric Neudel, director of Lives Worth Living

We asked Director Eric Neudel about his film Lives Worth Living, which premieres on Independent Lens tonight at 10pm (check local listings). The film follows the formation and journey of the disability rights movement through the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The movement scored one of the most significant civil rights victories in American history.

Since we interviewed Neudel, Fred Fay passed away.

What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope this film helps others to gather the courage to fight for their rights.

Fred Fay

Fred Fay in 2009

What led you to make this film?
The minute I met Fred Fay in 2005 I knew I wanted to make a film about him. Fred is a remarkable person, a quadriplegic who has lived on a wheel bed since 1981. As we became friends he told me an intriguing story about the disability rights movement. I was amazed that such a struggle had even taken place. In late 2007 he became very ill. When Fred recovered, I thought the time was right to record what I could of his story. Through this process, he introduced me to dozens of his fellow activists. The film just blossomed after that.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
The most difficult challenge was finding a way to tell a concise, coherent and compelling story without using a narrator — an element I felt would put me in the position of speaking for people who by all rights needed to speak for themselves. In the end, we crafted a mosaic using many voices to tell one story.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?
Fred Fay trusted me. The respect that other activists had for him spilled onto me. I thoroughly studied the people I chose to interview and learned small details about their lives. When I eventually interviewed them, I would use these details in my questions. This sense of detail often surprised them, brought back memories, and connected me to them.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
There could never be enough dramatic space in one program for the thousands of people who led the disability rights movement. We had to omit dozens of important activists and drop several characters we had interviewed. We also dropped several good scenes because they moved the film away from the main story. I see this as a truth of storytelling: too many characters, too many departures, and the story stops.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
The scene with Senators Tom Harkin and Ted Kennedy speaking after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This scene remind us of the range of the disability experience. These two powerful men convey their pain at having witnessed prejudice first hand. Even the mighty have to fight through their own losses and the stigma of disability.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
The few people who have seen the finished version of this film have cried. This audience, however, is a skewed sample. Some of the viewers are characters in the film. Some are their relatives. Their feedback has been wonderful and they are genuinely excited.

The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
I love solving the puzzle of a film. This process is a lot of fun. I bring this enjoyment to the hope that I can make a difference – even if it’s just in a small way.

Why did you choose to present your film on PBS?
I had worked in public television for many years and felt that PBS could offer the best opportunity to reach the audience of people who live with disability everyday — tens of millions of people. I think there is a hunger for this program within the disability community and, in return, a unique opportunity for PBS to capture this audience.

What do you remember most about making the film?
Mostly what I remember is lugging bags through airports and stuffing them into small rental cars. We often slept and lived in friends’ apartments — sometimes in deplorable conditions. We complained a lot about dust balls and frightening bathrooms, but we loved our lives during it all.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
I didn’t repair my house or do much gardening. I stopped my writing projects and nearly abandoned my still camera.

What are your three favorite films?
To Kill A Mockingbird (director Robert Mulligan), Casablanca (Michael Curtiz), Happy New Year (Claude Lelouch)

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Be aware that your efforts to describe your idea will almost certainly be misunderstood. This misunderstanding is very useful. It will force you to sharpen your own thinking. Do the extra work to be as simple and clear as possible. Be aware that you will have numerous ups and downs. Don’t linger at either extreme. Just hang in there and keep working. Find a good partner who will absorb some the rejection you will encounter along the way and help you understand what the rejection signifies.

What fuels and sustains you when you’re making a film?
Humble pie seems like the figurative answer. But in the spirit of being literal: Japanese food.

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  • Jo Holzer

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for telling our story — especially for all the millions who were not and could not participate. Beautifully and accurately done piece of work. I even saw a photo of myself standing next to Sen. Kennedy at the signing.
    I sincerely hope that you will stick with the issue. How about examining the single issue of curb cuts? They affect everyone but especially of course anyone with a mobility limitation, even a stroller. My only question is, why are city engineers/managers unable to do the simple, though often complex, geometry involved in achieving the ADA minimum standards?
    We all are indebted to you for your sensitive insights. Thank you!

    • Tewellmg

      The film brought back many memories, sadly of some heroes who are no longer with us physically. One of the cover photos was of a freind of mine, Chris Hronos, who was demonstrating in front of a bus in freezing (most likely Denver) weather. I had Chris’ dog after he passed away and she loved to listen to the voice mail I saved for her of his almost unintelligible (to me) speech. I had no photos of Chris until Oct. 27th. What a great story it is and we thank Eric Neudel for bringing it to the light so honestly and clearly.

  • Marnie Stanton

    The courageous story of the thousands of folks who gave voice to the struggle for mobility, which ultimately evolved into the Disabilities Act, was amazing and inspiring. It is shocking that it has taken so long for their story to be told. Eric Neudel did a wonderful job of weaving the old footage with the key players that drove the movement. I’m sure I would be joined by many when I say that self-pity in our culture has no place when compared with the obstacles that have challenged so many of these proud individuals. Bravo Eric!!

    Marnie Stanton
    Martha’s Vineyeard

  • Chica5150

    I would like to purchase this movie. Please tell me where to find it.

  • Gfranklin1820

    I would like Mr. Eric Neudel, the director of “Lives Worth Living” to know that his film has had a profound impact on my eleven year old child.
    We visited Washington, DC in late October, 2011 and we stayed at the Washington Plaza Hotel where we watched this film together. She has NEVER stopped talking about the most influential scene to her, watching the disabled people climbing the stairs at the Capitol.
    Although my daughter is a very compassionate child and would do anything to help any person or animal for that matter in this world, disabled or not, she was moved to see the struggles the disabled in the United States of America had to go through to get to where we are today.
    She has been so moved that she is going to do this topic as a class project. We’ve ordered the film and she is going to show it as a part of her class presentation, yes an eleven year old sixth grader gets it!
    I’m very proud of her and am over joyed with pride and just would love to give a big hug of thank you the maker of this film. It was long overdue.
    Thank you.


  • SylviArt

    I would love to see this film. I am temporarily experiencing physical problems with 2 bad knees (bone on bone) so I have been experiences similar to another comment here. Curbs scare me and I won’t walk up or down stairs. Even two steps are a horrifying experience.

    I have another invisible disability (when I am stable that is) and it is Bipolar 1. I wonder if you would be interested in filming the mentally ill people and the stigma involved with their experiences and the way the media presents them.

    I am an artist and poet and have worked as a mental health worker. I consider myself a good role model when I am doing well. However I have been thru extreme episodes and been psychotic many times. I have been thru hell and back and am determined to stay stable. I know that is not always possible but I am trying… I also know alot of people with mental illness.

    See my Surreal ART –

  • Lkell32

    We have a disability advocacy group getting and we showed the movie during a party we had for
    our group. We are known as Disability Freedom Fighters of Racine, WI. I would like to know where I can purchase this DVD from.
    Laurie Kell

  • Cory Ybarra

    How doyou purchase the movie. I am the parent of a young adult wth differnt abilities and the founder of a NGO that works with people with different abilities in other counties. I would love to have this in my library