by Anna Wolfe
Intelligent Lives, a documentary by award-winning filmmaker, Dan Habib, will be launching at national and regional Film Festivals this Spring! The film is produced and narrated by Chris Cooper, who is known for his roles in American Beauty, October Sky, The Bourne Identity, and Seabiscuit.
“I had a good night of teaching my class tonight at Syracuse University. I am looking forward to having a good day tomorrow…”
Micah, one of the subjects of Intelligent Lives ends his day with these words. In addition to teaching at Syracuse, Micah takes high level classes at one of the best universities for disability studies. When he’s not conquering the academic world, Micah enjoys mitt drill training (or in layman’s terms, boxing), going out for happy hour with friends, and spending time with his girlfriend.
Had this documentary been made in the 70s, 80s, or even the 90s, Micah’s story would have been very different. However, as Intelligent Lives shows, individuals like Micah are challenging generations of segregation and helping to create transformative communities. You see, in addition to living a full, passion-filled life, Micah has cerebral palsy and an IQ of 40; however, this does not define who he is or reduce the impact he makes in people’s’ lives each day.
In the documentary, Micah’s mother comments that, “what we want to focus on is not a label, but on what are the supports that a child or a person needs in order to participate in a meaningful way?” Dan Habib, in Intelligent Lives highlights the challenges of assessment using traditional methods, and in turn demonstrates additional ways of identifying and meeting individual support needs.
Intelligent Lives also follows the lives of Naieer Shaheed, a remarkably talented artist and high school student, and Naomie Monplaisir, a young woman transitioning to paid, integrated employment. Both are individuals with disabilities who demonstrate what it means to be successful and unleash our true human potential each and every day.
In a recent interview with ONEder, award-winning documentary filmmaker and director Dan Habib discusses Intelligent Lives and his reasons for making this film.
What prompted you to make this film?
Dan Habib: Some years ago, I was in the middle of the roll out of my film Who Cares About Kelsey. A friend of mine, a retired Dean of Education at Syracuse University, said to me one day, “you know, Dan, if you could really see the struggles, you could tell it.” That was an enormous ideal and that’s the greatest obstacle… the ability to have a full life, school and community and education, in the perception of a telling. And I see that on a very personal level with my son Samuel, who is a senior in high school. He’s starting to take college classes next year and has a vibrant circle of friends. But because he has cerebral palsy, is in a wheelchair, and has a communication device, people often talk to him like he’s a three-year-old. Not at his school, but in the broader community. So that really was the start of this idea, and then I started thinking, how do I do that? How do I pull that off?
How did Chris Cooper become involved?
Dan Habib: We met several years ago in Boston. I went for my film, Including Samuel, and Chris and his wife were there because of their organization, The Federation for Children with Special Needs, which they give scholarships through. We sat at the same table, we talked, we hit it off, we had a lot of shared experiences, and we socialized with Chris and Marianne for quite a few years. They’re very generous, down-to-earth people; they’re not Hollywood-types.
When it came time to do this film, I thought there would be no better narrator than Chris, and then, as we worked together, Chris, Marianne, and I realized the story of their experience with Jesse is a profound example. Marianne actually wrote an incredible book called Jesse: A Mother’s Story. Having their personal story was an important part of the film.
In the documentary, Micah’s mother mentions that we need to find supports that help children participate in life in a meaningful way. What do you see that looking like in the future?
Dan Habib: I think it’s much easier to create inclusion in our society if, at the very beginning, we think about how we can create schools that are inclusive. Start at the beginning with, okay, let’s make sure we deliver our curriculum and our instruction in multiple ways for different kinds of learning, whether that’s orally or visually or written or experientially. My oldest son, who does not have a disability, is an experiential learner. And then we need to think about, how do we create a school climate and culture for all students to feel accepted, welcome, and supported? How do we create an environment for peers to work together that’s very motivating for students rather than always leaving them to work alone.
For more information about Intelligent Lives, check out https://www.intelligentlives.org/
*This interview has been edited for clarity and length.