Tying Your Own Shoes: Interview with filmmaker, artists
Filmmaker Shira Avni gives credit where it’s due.
The award-winning documentarian premiered her new animated film, Tying Your Own Shoes (2009), in Toronto this year before it began touring internationally. Avni can explain the film, but she leaves it up to the main characters – four artists with Down syndrome – to tell their stories. Avni may have brought them together, but she says they made the film.
Following the film’s first screening, Avni and the artists take to the stage in panel position. When the applause won’t stop, Avni steps aside and gestures to the artists – Matthew Brotherwood, Daninah Cummins, Katherine Newton, and Petra Tolley. Then it is their turn to front audience questions.
They explain the film. It’s a profoundly intimate, emotional look at their lives through a combination of interviews, artwork, and still-frame animation. It challenges the philosophical boundaries between personal experience and disability using humour and wondrous storytelling.
As they spoke, ever so carefully, these characters personally debunked any number of stereotypes about intellectual disability and Down syndrome in particular – just as they do on screen – so I wanted to learn more about how it all came together.
Here are excerpts from my interviews with Avni and three of the artists in her film.
Jones: How did you become involved in this film?
Newton: I was talked into it by Shira…she interested me in art.
Brotherwood: Shira approached me about this a few years ago because I’ve done arts, since elementary, and into animation…and my dad says, going to help do other animation…I do clay making, painting, sculpting.
Jones: Where did this idea come from?
Avni: I can’t really take credit for the idea. Matthew’s father asked me whether I had ever thought of making a film where people with Down syndrome were a driving creative force behind the film.
Jones: Who played the lead role in developing the stories?
Avni: I had a set of basic interview questions that we had to toss because we would go off on tangents, and what they were saying was usually much more interesting than the interview questions that I had set up. So all of the content is their content.
Jones: What kind of content did you produce to make this film come together?
Newton: I like colouring, it’s very colourful…it’s a grid and there’s designs in it.
Cummins: I made drawing and painting.
Brotherwood: The art is like painting and colouring and going step by step, if you wanted to follow it you have to watch this animation, you have to read bits, and then you have to picture it, with the animation we did.
Jones: What is the best part of the film?
Newton: I like it and thought it was creative…[the best part was] everything, and I liked the paint.
Brotherwood: The best part is the interviewing because when they’re asking questions about the animation.
Jones: What were some of the challenges you faced with the interviews?
Avni: People needed to be comfortable with the interview process and verbal enough to engage with the interview process, which did cut off a percentage of the Down syndrome community: People who didn’t go through the education system, or maybe grew up in institutions or grew up in an era where it was impossible to educate your child who has down syndrome, so they [were] possibly less verbal. Even though their intelligence and possibilities are more or less the same as people who are more verbal in a younger generation.
Jones: What were some of the other obstacles in making this type of film?
Avni: We had long conversations about sex and love and there’s actually a lot in there that they asked me not to put in to the film because they felt it was too personal, and they didn’t really want to share it with their families or their workers…it’s just bad practice to take advantage of a population that’s vulnerable in the name of truth or of the importance of the film itself.
Jones: And when you watch the film, which part of the film stood out to you the most?
Cummins: My favourite movie, also my cat, Puff, and my apartment.
Brotherwood: I think Daninah’s, the cat thing…It’s about Daninah’s living situation, she used to have a pet, and now she says she has no more cats and no more pets, and they’re not allowed.
Jones: So that’s a reference to her cat named Puff, whose story is told as a way of giving some insight into Daninah’s life, right?
Jones: Why do you think that part is important?
Cummins: I feel happy, I feel proud of myself.
Brotherwood: Because I’m watching it, I’m thinking it, when it happens to my cat they die. That’s what happened to the cats I used to have.
Jones: What is your perception of the disability-based film scene?
Avni: There are really good films out there, but I think the problem is distribution. Often people think, ‘Oh, whose going to want to see that? That’s such a niche market.’
Jones: And what do you think this film means for people with Down syndrome?
Cummins: Down syndrome means I am special. I mean, makes me special.
Brotherwood: It means you have disabilities and if you have your own heart to show and give your art to people to show you guys for the animation we did.
Avni: I guess the message fundamentally is to keep an open mind. And what you see is not always what you think. Someone with special needs may be much brighter than you think and much more capable than you think and much more articulate and expressive and talented and capable than our initial assumptions. It’s just to take the time to listen to them and get to know them more than we have been.