In March 2009, Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver officially responded to President Barack Obama’s Tonight Show Special Olympics gaffe in this way: “Words can cause pain and result in stereotypes that are unfair and damaging to people with intellectual disabilities. And using ‘Special Olympics’ in a negative or derogatory context can be a humiliating put-down to people with special needs.” (“After telling Leno he had scored 129 in a recent bowling game, the president offered what he intended as self-deprecating humor. ‘It’s like—it was like Special Olympics, or something,’ he said.” – “Obama’s ‘Tonight Show’ gaffe one of many for president”, John McCormick, Chicago Tribune, 21 March 2009)
Shriver also warmly accepted Mr. Obama’s apology and called the situation a “teachable moment” in the conversation about those with intellectual disabilities. Obama’s joke, which compared his bowling score to Special Olympics results, was strikingly outmoded, its supposed humor relying on lowered expectations for disabled athletes. But the very mission of the Special Olympics (and the greater movement it represents) is to provide a forum for the differently abled to excel beyond society’s lowered expectations. Considered in that context, the joke was wholly regressive—a rhetorical relic from a bygone perspective on those with disabilities.
Arriving on DVD with an endorsement by Mr. Shriver, Ilana Trachtman’s groundbreaking documentary Praying with Lior is an excellent antidote to ongoing misunderstandings and misstatements about the disabled. In the tradition of Best Boy and My Flesh and Blood, Trachtman’s film focuses on a family that deals with the special needs of a loved one—in this case, a boy with Down syndrome. The son of rabbis Devora Bartnoff and Mordechai Liebling, Lior is the center of attention in his family and at his spiritual community of Mishkan Shalom.
Lior is sometimes called “the little rebbe” as a result of his apparent spiritual devotion. As we see in a home video from when he was a very young boy, he would rather daven (pray) than sing children’s songs or do anything else, for that matter. Sitting on his mother’s lap, Lior learns the traditions that will become the unique contribution he makes to the world around him.
As is revealed early in the documentary, Lior’s beloved mother Devora passed away when he was six years old. The film acknowledges the impact of her death on husband Mordechai and children Yoni, Reena and Anna, but there is a special connection between her absence and Lior’s devotion to ritual and tradition. He seems to have inherited much of his mother’s spirit, and director Trachtman realizes how intense that bond is and illustrates it to the audience in various ways throughout the film.
A voice-over track includes passages of “Praying with Lior”, the article by Devora that informs the film’s exploration of the boy’s spirituality. The film also intersperses home video footage of Devora, weaving her presence into the text and creating a very present, alive character.
The structure of the film is a bit scattershot, using interviews and verite footage to cover small episodes in the life of the Liebling family. Some discussion of the film surrounds its lack of any major onscreen conflicts or controversies. Though while the audience does not see any particularly bad or trying day in the life of the characters, there is something invigorating and affirming in the embrace of the family’s mundane struggles.
The major development Trachtman covers is Lior’s preparation to become a Bar Mitzvah. Those around him are concerned and excited to guide him through this important moment in his life and to help him recognize its impact. Most of these characters are refreshingly unveiled as they discuss Lior’s role in their lives.
Father Mordechai discusses his fear that Lior does not yet understand what it is to have Down syndrome. He worries that the Bar Mitzvah ceremony will be the high point of Lior’s life, followed by the disappointment of being different. Younger sister Anna openly shares her frustration with the amount of attention Lior steals from her and the embarrassment his condition sometimes causes. And the short interviews with Lior’s classmates reveal their patient understanding of his disability and admiration of his commitment to davening. Even if they are only reciting reminders from their parents regarding how to properly treat Lior, it is clear that the instruction has left its mark on them and they treat him with respect.
Admirably, the film avoids the common trap of the disability documentary, which is to take a position too forcefully “on behalf” of the central character. Trachtman does not speak for Lior but instead allows him to speak, both literally and as part of the film’s general perspective. At several points, Lior even “directs” the film—action, cut, and camera position appear to be at his discretion and he charmingly relishes the power. The interviews with Lior—the only ones during which we also hear the questions being asked—play out in a more spontaneous way than the other interview material in the film.
So on one level Trachtman sacrifices formal consistency, but what she gains is a level of transparency with regard to the mode of production. Since Lior would likely not be understood as well if she and editor Zelda Greenstein cut together his answers and excised her questions, she leaves both questions and answers in the final version. His answers are frequently insightful, sometimes cryptic, and always more useful windows into his mind than any filmmaker’s “behalfing” would provide.
Although this unfiltered approach to the character is mostly used to ensure self-representation, ethical concerns sporadically arise. More than once, the camera finds Lior with a dirty nose and at one point sister Reena even comments on how dirty his nose is. The camera pushes in to highlight this, and only after capturing the evidence (a dirty nose) do we see a family member finally hand him a tissue.
This is not the only scene that suffers from the lack of tasteful intervention from the director or camera operator. Of even higher stakes is a scene in which Lior allows dog Akiva to take his shoe into the woods. When Lior wants his shoe back and cannot find it, he demands that Akiva show him where the shoe is. Akiva barks and advances towards him, and it is clear that Lior is frightened. His repeated “no!” and fearful body language should warn the crew that their subject is in danger or at least believes he is in danger, yet their response is to just keep shooting.
Most of the scenes of Lior playing alone, which remove him from his community, position him as a curiosity and work against the otherwise positive portrayal. Moreover, this is not a boy that could safely spend too much time alone, so to situate him that way for the benefit of a movie scene is questionable. But these ethical breaches are few and the film mostly maintains a straightforward and empowering portrait of the character and his community.
Finally, although the documentary is called Praying with Lior and much attention is paid to Lior’s predilection for davening, Trachtman is careful not to cross into apotheosis, which would be a strong temptation for a lesser filmmaker. The film walks a careful line between honoring Lior’s rich spiritual perspective and realistically confronting its origin and impact.
Trachtman balances the sometimes-overestimated opinion of Lior’s spiritual condition (by members of his synagogue, for instance) with Mordechai saying, “he’s not a rebbe; he’s not a conscious spiritual teacher”. So for the people in his life and for the film’s audience, the message is to be encouraged by the force of life Lior represents, but to also be conscious not to rely so much on the symbol that we exploit the life of the one who carries it.
It would be unfair—and quite frankly, selfish—for anyone to demand too much spiritual nourishment from Lior just because he zealously prays. The best response (and the film’s stance) is to celebrate the gift Lior has been given and to appreciate how that gift enriches a life that otherwise includes many trials and tests. As such, Lior’s Bar Mitzvah ceremony at the climax of the film is not merely a rite, but the recognition of that capacity for triumph over adversity.
Ultimately, the purpose of Praying with Lior is not to provide a standard set or level of expectations for the life of a person with Down syndrome, but to express that the monolithic view is fundamentally flawed. The film suggests that we all benefit from viewing each life, regardless of “ability”, as a teachable moment.
The special features included on the DVD release are an informative addition to the documentary’s already thoughtful presentation of a family that includes a disabled member. There are deleted scenes from the film, a list of educational resources, and valuable bonus scenes.
Included in the bonus scenes is Being a Special Needs Sibling, which profiles children in the Sib-Connection program in Scarsdale, New York. This short piece extends the feature film’s concern for those brothers and sisters that (like Lior’s sister Anna) feel left behind because of the demands of a special needs sibling. Also included is Follow Up Interviews, 4 Years Later, which returns to the family of a now 17-year-old Lior. These follow-up interviews are revelatory because they allow the family to express how their attitudes and lives have changed since the original footage was shot.
In a rare move, Trachtman allows her characters to react on camera to the film and their representation within it. Anna is no longer as frustrated with her brother and Mordechai looks back on his too-low expectations for Lior’s teenage life with disbelief. Additionally, Lior’s advancement and self-advocacy appear to be the result of watching himself in the film and learning through the film what it is to have Down syndrome.