Guillermo F. Florez, director of Speechless, is interviewed about the documentary. Part I of II.
Let's start from the beginning... How did the film idea came?
The film begun with a coincidence, like many films, when someone explained to me what aphasia is. But I started becoming very interested in aphasia a few months later, when I decided to make a series of short videos that showed how therapy helps people who have lost the speech. It was then, when I started meeting many people with aphasia, when I realized the potential of the project.
When did you decide to make a film about aphasia?
When I first went to an aphasia meeting in Edward D. Mysak Clinic of Teachers College in Columbia University, I suddenly saw that not only the therapy dynamics were very interesting, but even more, the personal stories of this group of about 50 people who had lost their speech were literally amazing. At this point, me and my co-producer begun to study deeper the social consequences of loosing the speech, first through literature and films (scientific and artistic), then through interviews with stroke survivors, their relatives and many speech-language pathologists.
Why Ed, Tinna and Lance? How did you find the main characters?
The production of this film has been quite special, because we had one luxury that often only small and low budget films have: TIME. We could stay a couple of months just attending therapies in New York, doing field work, thinking in ideas about how the story should be… So we took quite a lot of time in choosing three characters amongst hundreds of aphasia patients we had met. The first one was Ed, a man who was in the beginnings of his photography learning process. Ed and his mother were very open from the first interview, and we thought his personal and professional situation was very representative and had to be somehow in the film.
A few weeks later, we started working with Tinna and her husband. Tinna's story had a few elements that we really wanted in our film. The fact that she is a woman was an important storyline, but I would say that what convinced us was her incredibly strong character and her desire of becoming a mother, even though she couldn't give birth because of health issues.
Finally, a while later, we met Lance, who just had the stroke. A very charismatic and talkative man (as we saw in his home videos), Lance was clearly going through a loss of identity process, but he had the ever-lasting support of his wife Malvina. In the first interview we made, we liked very much the behavior that had one with each other: it expressed so much love and support.
What was the most difficult thing you did in this film?
It's difficult to say. There were many dramatic difficulties, but I must say that the most difficult thing has been from the production side, in the sense of counting with the support of many medical and educational institutions, but always dealing with a shortage of funding. The biggest challenge for an emerging filmmaker is often just to be able to make the film.
How long does it take for a documentary director to picture reality?
Reality is always difficult to define or understand. On one hand, we filmmakers make stories and we tend to think in terms of narrative arcs. But more often than not, life has no clear beginnings, middles or ends. In this project I wanted to have a balance between following the logics of storytelling, and being very honest with how the events unfold. It took me quite long to feel comfortable with how I portrayed reality in this film.
However, there is also the characters' side: how much time it takes for them to feel comfortable with someone filming them? This is something related to the trust relationship built between filmmaker and character, and it changes case by case. It really doesn't matter how much time took in any particular film (in our case was pretty fast, and we ended up having a close friendship with all the main characters). The filmmaker has to feel that he has arrived to that point, and from there his filmmaking will have much more meaning because he will be able to film his character from at a much deeper level.
(To be continued...)