This is an article from the spring 2018 issue of LSA Magazine. Read more stories from the magazine.
Jody Becker (A.B. 1986) and Dan Habib (A.B. 1987) worked together at the Michigan Daily, Habib as a photographer and Becker as a reporter and opinion editor. The two covered the news of the day separately and together, which included issues like American companies divesting from South Africa under apartheid, an issue that spurred protests across the Ann Arbor campus of U-M.
“In those days at the Daily, you got an assignment and you’d go to wherever the story was happening and you’d meet your photographer there,” Becker says. Habib had a knack for always being on the scene first, she says, scoping out the story, capturing the action, and the feeling of the moment.
Habib remembers Becker as a tremendous collaborator, someone from whom he learned a lot.
“I always thought Jody seemed like a professional journalist posing as a college student,” Habib says. “She was amazingly professional and insightful, and she helped me learn critical lessons about journalistic ethics and integrity.”
In 2008—25 years after their work together at the Daily—the pair reconnected when Becker heard about a documentary film that Habib had produced about his son, Samuel. The film Including Samuel touched on disability issues. Becker was working as a writer and producer on a father-son film that also touched on related subjects, the film Autistic-Like: Graham’s Story.
“Dan being Dan, he gave us all kinds of unbelievably great advice about getting more attention for the film, including how to get on PBS,” Becker says.
Becker and Habib had both built successful careers in journalism. Becker established herself as a radio reporter-producer and documentary story editor and Habib as a photojournalist and documentary filmmaker. Though they’d been back in touch since 2008, they didn’t meet again in person until last year.
Over lunch in Los Angeles, Habib discussed some of his ongoing projects. Becker loved the rough cut of what would become a 30-minute documentary called Mr. Connolly Has ALS, which will air nationally on public television on June 11, 2018. Becker sent Habib notes, and that led to Habib inviting Becker to work with him on another documentary, a feature-length film called Intelligent Lives.
Carving the Story
Intelligent Lives follows three subjects: Micah Fialka-Feldman, who was attending Syracuse University; Naieer Shaheed, who was navigating high school in Dorchester, Massachusetts; and Naomie Monplaisir, who was looking for sustainable employment. All three had been labeled as having intellectual disabilities, and all three had fought hard—and had family members who fought alongside them—to help them succeed in inclusive environments.
The stories in Intelligent Lives all touch on the challenges of transition: the transition from high school to college, from college to what comes after, and from segregated environments to more inclusive ones.
Naomie Monplaisir at the beauty school where she works. Monplaisir was a subject of LSA alumnus Dan Habib’s documentary Intelligent Lives, about the current challenges and historical prejudices facing people with intellectual disabilities.
The film took years to make. Some subjects were selected early in the process, while others came on only after months of searching. And after Habib had selected his subjects, there were still months and months of filming to capture and communicate their stories.
“What is interesting about working with filmmakers the way that I do is that filmmakers all see the stories unfolding in real time,” Becker says. “They’ve done a lot of shooting, and they’ve fallen in love with their characters. And when they come to me, they are really looking for help in compressing the story and enhancing it.”
“I like working with people who hold me and my films to extremely high standards and are never afraid to tell me what they really think,” Habib says. Becker did that, Habib says, “even if we both knew the suggestion might entail significant revisions and a lot more work. She has a unique ability to look ahead several steps, like in a chess game, to understand how the viewer will perceive a certain scene or theme.”
An Impromptu Party at the Beauty Salon
The topic for Intelligent Lives took shape organically, Habib says. A 2014 federal law known as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) vastly expanded employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The law focuses on work that is competitive, which means everyone has to apply for a job, and work that is integrated, which means it’s in a “typical,” non-segregated setting. These are important changes, Habib says.
“Competitive, integrated employment means not having people in these sheltered workshops where they’re getting paid sub-minimum wage to do menial work alongside only other people with disabilities,” Habib explains. “That’s not as meaningful as life can be for people.”
In the film, Monplaisir attends a planning session with a counselor and members of her family to make a plan for using her social network to help her look for a job. She then gets a temporary, unpaid position at a nearby beauty school through a friend of a friend. At the end of the trial period, the beauty school administrators decide to offer Monplaisir a position there. When they do, everybody celebrates.
Students and teachers, men and women, people with dye jobs and perms and heads of soaking wet hair all drop what they’re doing to give Monplaisir a big hug when they hear the news. It’s obvious that they all know and love her, and that she will have a good chance of being happy there doing work she finds meaningful.
“What I really liked about the beauty school was that it was such a great community for Naomie,” Habib says. “And that’s something we always have to remember, that work is often a big part of our community. And if you don’t have a job, or if you don’t have a job in a ‘typical’ work environment, then you’re missing out on what could be a series of really wonderful connections.”
Surface the Story
Part of the fight against the segregation of people with disabilities, Habib says, is surfacing the stories of people with disabilities, showing that they are not just a part of specific communities but that they are a part of every community.
And change can begin, Becker says, with a compelling story that motivates viewers to action. The core of the pair’s collaboration was this effort to tell these stories in an inclusive, entertaining, and dramatic way — to meet the audience where they are.
“A lot of my work is involved in helping carve the story out from hours of footage, to keep the story understandable and to also make it dramatic,” Becker says. “In documentary, you don’t want to overexplain and you don’t want to underexplain. You want to put the viewer into an active role. Both of these films are deeply invested in creating an environment where viewers can actively reach their own understanding of people and the issues.”
“The end goal of all of this is to get the film in people’s lives one way or another so that it can create change,” Habib says. “I love making films, but I didn’t get into this just to make films. I got into this to create change. And I feel that change is best created when it’s based on really solid research of what is actually helping people with disabilities gain access to college or employment or full social lives. And that’s what we’re trying to capture and communicate in a really compelling way.”