Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer 2006, Volume 26, No. 3
<www.dsq-sds.org>
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


BOOK & FILM REVIEWS

Makar, M. and K. Rondinelli (Co-Directors). (2006). Yellow Brick Road [film]. 75 minutes. Shown on HBO and Cinemax in January and February 2006.

Reviewed by Beth Haller, Towson University

HBO appears to have made it a partial mission to bring documentaries focused on disability to its cable channel. Part of this commitment may stem from the Oscars HBO can now claim from two disability-themed documentaries, Educating Peter (1992) and King Gimp (1999), both of which won for Best Documentary Short.

Unfortunately, Yellow Brick Road, one of the new disability documentaries on HBO, is not of the caliber of these other documentaries, which can probably be attributed to the beginner filmmakers. It began as a birthday present from the documentary's co-director Matthew Makar to his brother who has Down syndrome. Makar's brother, Danny, participates in Long Island's ANCHOR program (Answering the Needs of Citizens with Handicaps through Organized Recreation).

For the gift, Makar filmed the ANCHOR drama program's performance of Willy Wonka, in which Danny Makar played an Oompa Loompa. Makar's friend Keith Rondinelli edited the film, and the two of them got the idea of focusing a documentary on ANCHOR's drama program. Makar, who had been working as a production assistant, got a job at a New York camera rental house so he would have access to sound and cameras. They received permission from ANCHOR, where Matthew Makar had worked as a volunteer for several summers, and began filming the five-month rehearsal process for its production of The Wizard of Oz (Yellow Brick Road Web site, 2006).

The documentary follows a chronological format and focuses primarily on the main performers for the roles of the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, the Wicked Witch, the Mayor of Munchkinland, and Dorothy. And much time is spent interviewing the director of the drama program and the show, Sandy Braun. Unfortunately, with all these people to profile, the documentary loses some depth and comes off feeling fragmented.

Yellow Brick Road is at its best when it allows the drama participants to tell their stories and what acting means to them. Two ANCHOR members, in particular, stand out and left me wishing the documentary focused on them exclusively. Dave, who plays the Tin Man, has cerebral palsy and an exuberant spirit. He's had a rough life and both his parents are deceased. He talks candidly about his joys and sorrows. He makes it clear that acting and music are the joys of his life.

Elizabeth, who is selected to play the Wicked Witch of the West, is completely open with her feelings and thoughts. Right from the beginning of the documentary when she bursts into tears of happiness when she is selected to be the Wicked Witch, you want to hear more about her life. The filmmakers do follow both Dave and Elizabeth to their respective homes for more in-depth interviews, but I still wanted to know more.

Quite a bit of the documentary is an interview with Sandy Braun, who explains the trials and tribulations of directing. It is somewhat jarring to hear her call the all-adult cast "kids," but she does explain that it is because she feels like a second mother to them. She leaves a better impression when you see her direct the cast because she treats them as she might any other community theater group, with her threats to replace them if they miss any more rehearsals.

However, my biggest complaint about the documentary is the letdown at the end. After watching the months of preparation, we only get to see a few minutes of the final performance. I realize there is not time to show much of the performance, but seeing some of the performers deliver their songs or a few key lines would have been an enjoyable payoff for viewers after seeing all the cast's dedicated preparation. Instead, the filmmakers spend endless minutes showing us every cast member receiving flowers while "Somewhere over the rainbow" plays in the background.

Finally, it was a bit of clichéd drama to focus on Dave, who had used his wheelchair to play the Tin Man, when he walked across the stage to receive his flowers at the end. We knew he could walk from the beginning of the documentary. I think it was a nicer touch that the production's Tin Man used a wheelchair without need for comment.

But that's what is unsettling about "feel good" documentaries. The average viewing public wants that inspirational tone; they want to see people "overcome challenges." I'd prefer to see the audience challenged by documentaries in which they receive true insight about the multifaceted experiences of disability.

References

Yellow Brick Road Web site. (2006). http://www.hbo.com/docs/programs/yellowbrickroad/interview.html. Accessed Feb. 6, 2006.





Copyright (c) 2006 Beth Haller



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ISSN: 2159-8371