Filmmaker Jim Bigham sat down with Independent Lens to talk about making For Once in My Life, and how his subjects inspired him to make a film about people with mental and physical challenges that wasn’t condescending but rather expansively joyful. For Once in My Life premieres tonight at 10 PM on PBS (check local listings).
What impact do you hope this film will have?
With 54 million people living with disabilities in the United States, we can assume that everyone has been touched by disabilities in some way or another. I wanted to see this film get made to tell the world what people with disabilities — or any person, period — can do when given an opportunity to succeed. It’s very apparent to me that the band deserves that. By changing the way people think about disabilities, many things can change in our society. Everyone deserves a chance at fulfilling his or her dreams. Another impact is the power of music revealed as something that everyone should be exposed to and feed off of.
What led you to make this film?
Once being introduced to the band and hearing them play there was no chance of not wanting to make a film. The band members themselves know what it feels like to perform and have an audience get real pleasure from their music. They were the ones who really wanted to share their music with a larger audience, and Javier was extremely proud of their accomplishments both as musicians and as people. It just made sense that if I could become such an instant fan in meeting them that hopefully others would feel something from it. It’s a learning experience that should be shared. I feel that the beauty of documentaries is to expose a subject that may not always be comfortable and change that perception. We didn’t want to be a sympathy film, or to take a particular slant like a public service message. We just wanted the audiences to witness and appreciate for themselves, what can be accomplished when individuals are given the chance. I’ve been honored, humbled, and blown away by the band.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making For Once in My Life?
The most important thing was to make the story entertaining but be truthful to the subjects. We were very intent on using the fly-on-the-wall technique and not try to be manipulative of any situation or character. Gaining trust and letting the band members and their families know that we were working for them and with them was important. We never wanted to feel like we were exploiting anyone to make a point.
How did you gain the trust of the subjects in the film?
Mark and I wanted to reveal them in the most honest light possible. We knew it would take time and we’d have to be patient in order to be allowed to become part of their family and not just passing visitors. The process has been a wonderful experience. Getting to really know each of the various band members and getting to perceive them beyond their obvious struggles. In time we came to learn that their love of music and their need for friendship and independence are the common denominators that they all share, and above all a great attitude.
What would you have liked to include that didn’t make the cut?
Honestly, there are so many characters and interesting back-stories that we would have liked to develop but there wasn’t enough time. For instance, Rodrigo, who you see playing the ukulele in the “Jungle Book” scene and as a percussionist on “Conga”, has a father who is a famous folk musician from Venezuela. Also, Anthony had a scene in the film where we witnessed a counselor’s consultation with he and his mother, discussing his inability to focus and stay awake. He’s often seen sleeping at the keyboards and he happens to be a fantastic break-dancer. It was an emotional scene but with so many stories that could have been included, we had to stay focused.
Tell us about a scene that especially moved or resonated with you.
There’s a scene that was almost cut out of the film because of technical issues. It’s when Godwin’s mother confesses that she was ashamed and embarrassed as a young mom, and had to learn to grow up herself in order to realize the gift that she had been given. It wasn’t until the editing room that I realized the significance of her statement. Later, during the final concert, Godwin’s solo moment is almost a climax in the film for me, a turning point in the story.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the band members seen it, and if so, what did they think?
There’s always fear when first showing your film to an audience and you never know what reactions you’ll get but I’ve been amazed at the strong response of our audiences at the festivals. We’ve only been in four festivals to date and have received five prizes, three of which are audience awards. Mostly I felt gratitude and a humbling feeling from people as they watched and learned about the band members and their families. It was the same feeling I’ve experienced and I was relieved that those feelings were conveyed. The film seemed to make people proactive. Everyone wanted to know how they could help the band and help the film to be seen. Many were grateful for exposing a sometimes uncomfortable subject in a unique way and praised Javier Pena for his work. I’m often surprised that audiences made up of all age groups and backgrounds have gone out of their way to express their love for this film, from young filmmakers and artists to seniors to working class, faith-based groups and more. On more than one occasion grown men have approached me in tears and have expressed that it really struck a chord. That’s been absolutely awesome for me and I feel privileged to have been able to be part of this story. From our positive experiences and a couple rejections from festivals, we’ve learned a lot about finding the audience and, although we may not be the sexiest film out there, we do have a very wide audience and are figuring out how to market to them.
What has happened to the people in the film since shooting wrapped?
All the band members have seen the film with their families, numerous times and they love it. Sam and Patricia have recently gotten married. Godwin has vacationed with his family to China. Terry, David, and Nancy accompanied me to a celebration at the White House with President Obama on the 20th anniversary of the American Disabilities Act. Javier and Christian have been teaching the band the Beatle’s classic, “All You Need is Love.” One of the female sax players, Sarina, just sang her first lead vocal when I was there last, which was really monumental because in the beginning she was so shy. The band is always reaching higher.
The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
Having the opportunity and freedom to do and say what you want. Making films like this is why I appreciate and enjoy making independent films.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
We feel it’s the right audience and an effective way to convey the important message that this film has to offer.
Anything else you’d like us to know?
I would just like to thank the Miami Goodwill, the band members, and their families for allowing us to get such a raw, unaffected perspective into their world. The process has been a wonderful life experience that I am proud to be able to share with other people.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Well I didn’t make a lot of contributions to my retirement fund but I added a lot of value to my life.
What are your three favorite films?
Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and The Chorus (Les Choristes) … I have so many.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Be honest with yourself on why you are making the film, and really know who is your audience and how to best appeal to their attention.
What do recommened as sustenance for making independent film?
A good glass of wine, no particular color, just good.