Son inspires Habib to tell stories through films

Dan Habib is bringing two films to this year's Bentonville Film Festival. Both focus on the inclusion of those with disabilities.

Intelligent Lives is a feature length documentary film that Habib has been working on for four years. It's hitting the festival circuit now with this week's festival being its fourth screening.


• Intelligent Lives will show at 3 p.m. Wednesday at Marvel Experience in Skylight 1 and at 3 p.m. Thursday in Mockingbird Theatre in the Arvest Community Room.

• Mr. Connolly has ALS will show in the festival’s Shorts Competition 2018 Block 2 at noon Wednesday and 10:45 a.m. Friday in the Walmart Museum World Room.

Tickets are available online at http://www.bentonvi…">www.bentonvillefilm…

Source: Staff Report

Mr. Connolly has ASL is a short film that was released a year ago. It's been shown at festivals and screenings and will be broadcast on public television nationally in June.

Habib is a writer, director and cinematographer. He shared with the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette how having a son with cerebral palsy inspired him to become a filmmaker, how telling stories of those with disabilities promotes inclusion and how the Bentonville Film Festival differs than other film festivals.

Why did you get into filmmaking?

My film work started with my film Including Samuel, which is about my son, Samuel. Samuel is a high school senior and is really active with his friends and with school, is on the honor roll, is talking about college classes next year.

He also has cereal palsy, is in a wheel chair and uses a communication device to communicate. He has a lot of seizures and underlying health issues.

That Including Samuel film changed my whole career from being a journalist -- I was a photojournalist for 20 years -- to being a filmmaker. I say that because all my films have a disability connection.

I'm actually based at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, but my full-time job is just doing documentary films.

Talk more about the two films you're bringing to the Bentonville Film Festival.

Intelligent Lives is my third feature length film. It's an attempt to have people see intelligence much more broadly. We tend to get stuck on trying to measure intelligence with things like intelligence tests, SAT scores and standardized tests. Students with intellectual disabilities and adults with intellectual disabilities are often left out of the mix. They're segregated in separate classrooms, they're not working in real jobs, they're not necessarily seen as having relationships.

The film blows up the whole notion that there's any way to measure a person's intelligence in a way to predict potential for them to participate in the world, in school and employment. It does it through three stories of the three central characters and also through the narration of Academy Award-winner Chris Cooper, who like me, shares the experience of having a child with a disability and having them be underestimated.

Mr. Connolly has ALS has been doing more touring, but the interesting twist on this film is it's a film I made while doing Intelligent Lives and I never was really planning to.

My son, Samuel, his high school principal and he had a discussion one day years ago, and neither one of them could speak verbally. Mr. Connolly had developed ALS and developed the inability to speak and walk. They're at the homecoming parade communicating through devices and gestures and am thinking this can't be happening in the world that a student is talking to his principal and neither one can speak.

I did a short film that got a lot of national attention about what it felt like for Mr. Connolly to comes to terms with acquiring a disability and loosing the ability to speak and walk while continuing to lead the school and the incredibly supportive reaction that the school community and students have given him.

Have you been to this festival before?

No, I've never been. I'm really excited about it. I've heard about it, and I've heard it's a great festival, then I heard it's theme was around inclusion, and I was like oh my gosh, all my films are based on inclusion, this is a really good match.

What are you hoping viewers come away with after seeing your films at the festival?

I think this applies to both films in a way. I think that in our society people who are different because they have a disability, they can't speak in a typical way or move in a typical way, are automatically seen as less intelligent by most people.

I hope people see this film and the next time they see someone who can't talk in a way that's seen as "normal" or can't walk in a way that's seen as "normal," that they presume that these people have strengths, and they are competent to be in regular schools, in regular jobs, in relationships and living full lives in their communities. It will hopefully be a catalyst for a whole mind shift in intelligence and disability.

What are Samuel's post-high school plans?

I think one of the reasons I felt so compelled to tell the stories in Intelligent Lives is because my son is at that age now, transitioning from school to his future.

For kids with significant disabilities, it's not very simple because you don't get adult services until you're 21. If you graduate, get your diploma and leave your school, you fall off a cliff in terms of services.

So Samuel will continue to get some support from his school around occupational therapy, mental therapy, speech therapy. He'll probably continue taking some interesting elective courses at his school. He's also going to start taking classes at a local community college. He's going to do leadership training on disability advocacy here at the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability, where I'm at.

He and I are talking about co-directing, co-producing a sequel to my film Including Samuel. Including Samuel was on public television. It was translated into 17 languages, it's still showing all around the world.

People always ask me what is he doing now, where's he going. If we could produce a sequel, I think it would be very powerful.

He also just wants to work. He likes doing his own films and video production. He wants to continue to work in that field.

When you approached him about making a film about him, what was his response?

When I made Including Samuel, he was 3 or 4. Very young. He's very relaxed around the camera. I did show him a cut of the film by the time he was 7 or so when we were getting ready to release it. I wouldn't put anything in the film he didn't want to have in the film. My whole family had that power over the film because they're all very much telling an intimate story about their experience around disability and inclusion.

Now, I think throughout Samuel's life, we've tried to support his self determination. We've tried to include him with making decisions on every aspect of life down to the elective surgeries he might have for health reasons to how he wants to spend his future.

I think that will certainly be the case with this new film, which is why I want him to be a co-director, co-producer and to have as much creative control over it as I do.

Do you have any expectations? What's it like going to a new festival verses one that you've been to and know?

I think each festival has it different culture. It has a different niche. One of the senses I get from Bentonville is that they put a lot of energy into connecting filmmakers with media producers or media gate keepers and also corporations that believe in inclusion.

That's not the case with a lot of other festivals. I've never heard of another festival where that's a central part of the mission.

I think my expectation for Bentonville is that I'll have a really unique experience around connecting with other parts of the business landscape around films, whether it's the people that put the films in theaters, put the DVDs on the shelves, that are employers that care about this and maybe are hiring diverse people, whether it's people with disabilities or others.

Frankly, the most meaningful thing is just talking to the audience after the screening. No matter who shows up, whether it's 20 people or 500 people, having those conversations where people can ask you questions about the film, the characters, your motivation for doing it, share their reactions to the film, that to me is the most powerful part of these festivals.

NW News on 05/02/2018