I spoke with director Ilana Trachtman about Praying with Lior, her film about a young boy with Down syndrome whose spiritual impact on his family and faith community raises new questions about the nature of disability and who really talks to God. Click here to learn more about Praying with Lior and to view clips of the movie.
JB: How did you get involved with this project?
IL: While I’ve been producing and directing documentaries for fourteen years for television, I was not looking for an independent film project. I always thought the independent filmmakers were tougher, braver, and crazier than I was. But I saw Lior—a child with Down syndrome—praying at Jewish New Year service, and I was mesmerized by him. His praying was so focused, and so pure, while mine felt meaningless and detached. I wanted to understand why he could do what I couldn’t—and the pursuit of that question led to the film.
JB: Was it difficult to get it funded/off the ground?
IL: It was very hard to get people to see the need for, and be interested in, a film about a boy with Down syndrome. There is an incredible stigma against disability and against anything that might be patronizing or “good for you.” Most people think of after-school specials they were forced to watch. Until I had scenes from the movie shot and edited, I couldn’t convince people that this film was special and worth funding.
The financing for this film came entirely from grants and individual donations. I received a lot of $18 checks. (Eighteen is a “good luck” number in Judaism, money is traditionally given in denominations of $18.) The fundraising took a long time, and ultimately I received about thirty different foundation grants. But sometimes I spent weeks working on a grant proposal only to find out the foundation was going to give me $500.
JB: What has the response from audiences been like so far?
IL: I’ve been amazed by the audience response. You spend so long in a dark room with your subject, and all you know is that you and your editor find it compelling. Audiences have far exceeded my expectations. Everyone who sees it has become an advocate for the film, and the result is that it was the highest grossing independent film to open last weekend. The reviews have been glowing, and the best surprise is that people very far from those captured in the film (it centers on a Jewish family, and boy with Down syndrome) have been moved. Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, wrote an editorial in the Washington Post comparing Lior to Jesus.
JB: I see that this is your first independent feature as a director. How has your experience been so far with the theatrical release of the film?
IL: I find this whole process very humbling. It’s very different than television, and it’s a lot clunkier. There’s so much more luck involved, and we’re very much subject to the whims of individual bookers. In TV, you know that if something is slated to air on a particular day, it will. In independent film, your film can be pulled at the last minute. That said, I’m thrilled that NYC’s Cinema Village has extended the run of Praying with Lior through February 14th, and that we’ll be opening in Los Angeles on March 28 and Boston in April.
JB: What’s your next project?
IL: I’m working on a vérité documentary about the experience of Mexican-American teenagers through the lens of a competitive high school mariachi band.