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Media Enabled Musketeers: Russian & American Filmmakers with Disabilities Document Shared Struggles

StoryOctober 20, 2014
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Meet the Media Enabled Musketeers, a group of Russians and Americans with disabilities who have banded together to raise awareness about disability issues through film. They have created a dozen short movies that delve into the everyday challenges faced by people with disabilities — issues of accessibility, love, dreams and prejudice. One of the films, “Don’t Look Down on Me,” has become a YouTube sensation, viewed more than 2.6 million times. The film chronicles a day in the life of Jonathan Novick, a New York resident with achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism, who uses a hidden camera to expose the prejudice and insensitivity he encounters on a daily basis. We broadcast excerpts of the Musketeers’ films and speak to four of the people involved about how the Russian-American project provides a deeper understanding of life with disability while bridging the divide between their two countries.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Media Enabled Musketeers. That’s the name of a group of Russians and Americans who have banded together to raise awareness about disability issues through films. They’ve created a dozen short films that delve into the everyday issues faced by people with disabilities—issues of accessibility, love, dreams and prejudice. On Friday, the group held its premiere screening at the HBO Theater in New York City.

One of the films, Don’t Look Down on Me, has become a YouTube sensation, viewed over 2.6 million times. The film chronicles a day in the life of Jonathan Novick, a New Yorker with achondroplasia, the most common type of dwarfism. Jonathan uses a hidden camera to expose the prejudice and insensitivity that he encounters on a daily basis. It begins with him as a child.

JONATHAN NOVICK: Here I am, Dad! Here I am!

JONATHAN’S FATHER: Yeah, there you are!

JONATHAN NOVICK: I don’t think there is a certain point in anyone’s life where they grow up. I think that we’re growing up all the time, and we always will be. My name is Jon Novick. I’m 22 years old, and I am a dwarf with achondroplasia.

Before I was even born, my mother studied genetics in graduate school. Specifically, she had interest in achondroplastic dwarfism, that she did a study on. Achondroplastic dwarfism is the kind of dwarfism that I have. So when I was born, she had a lot of extra information, and she had a lot of books to help her parent me. The definition for “dwarfism” is a—the abnormal underdevelopment of the body, characterized predominantly by extreme shortness of stature. Now, there’s a lot of different kinds of dwarfism, as I mentioned before, and the most common kind is the kind that I have, which is achondroplasia.

Achondroplasia is characterized by disproportionately short limbs, a normal-size torso, large head and with a depressed nasal bridge—right here—a small face and stubby hands, as well as the curvature of the spine. The term is “dwarf” or “little person.” One or the other is totally fine, just not “midget.” A lot of times “midget” is thrown around as the term to describe someone who has dwarfism, and not only is that incorrect, but it’s incredibly offensive.

I moved to New York City about a year ago, and although I consider it ultimately a good experience, it was made a lot more difficult because of my dwarfism. I grew up in a small town, and I would have, you know, negative encounters every now and then, but for the most part I had friends and I had family who supported me. School wasn’t a nightmare, and I just was able to have a pretty average childhood.

A year ago, when I moved to the city, I noticed that there was a lot of people. There was a lot, a lot of people. And because of that, I had a lot of encounters. I would have people to take pictures of me on the subway. I would have people that would harass me. And just all of these things, all of these almost daily occurrences, they would continue happening, continue happening, until it got to a point where I just got fed up with it. I wanted to stop telling people what happened to me, and I wanted to start showing people what happened to me. I wanted to show everyone what a day in my life was like.

I was fortunate enough to be able to use this camera, which is actually known as a “button camera” because the lens I’m going to be using is so tiny, it has a button cover up that I’m going to be slipping through a shirt that will be completely unnoticeable. So, we are all packed up, the camera is all ready and going. I’m going to turn it on right now. It’s rolling. And we’re going to go see what we can capture, so let’s head out.


OKLAHOMAN MAN: Bro, have you been on TV?


OKLAHOMAN MAN: Do you know who you look like?


OKLAHOMAN MAN: Have you ever seen that show, Little People, Big World?


OKLAHOMAN MAN: Yeah. You look like the son, man.



JONATHAN NOVICK: And why is that? I just do? Do you see a lot of little people?

OKLAHOMAN MAN: Man, I’m from Oklahoma.


MAN IN SUBWAY: Little midget! Big man, big penis!

JONATHAN NOVICK: What? What did he say?

MAN ON THE STREET: Hey, short stuff!

JONATHAN NOVICK: [after woman in subway takes his photograph] Wow.

OKLAHOMAN MAN: Man, I hope I didn’t offend you.

JONATHAN NOVICK: Oh, no, no. It’s OK. No, I appreciate that. No, it’s fine.

OKLAHOMAN MAN: Can I get your picture?


WOMAN ON THE STREET: You’re from one of the show with the little people?

JONATHAN NOVICK: Not that I know of, no, I’m not.

WOMAN ON THE STREET: Oh, you look like that coolest guy.

JONATHAN NOVICK: I don’t want to tell anyone what to do or what to think or how to feel. But instead, what I’ll do is I’ll ask. I’ll ask that the next time you see someone who is different than you, think about what their day might be like. Think about all of the events of their life leading up to that point. Then think about their day, and think about what part of their day do you want to be.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Jonathan Novick’s Don’t Look Down on Me. It’s one of the dozen films, part of the Media Enabled Musketeers, a project bringing together Russians and Americans with disabilities to produce films that provide a deeper understanding of their lives and to bridge the divide between their two countries.

Well, for more, we’re joined by four guests. One of them is Jon Novick, a graduate student at Hunter College in the Integrated Media Arts Department. We’re also joined by Maryam Magomedova, a law school student in Russia who made the short film Maryam’s Victory. And we’re joined by the co-directors of Media Enabled Musketeers, Olga Kravtsova and Jon Alpert. Jon is a 16-time national Emmy Award winner, two-time Academy Award nominee.

And we welcome you all to Democracy Now! But I have to follow up on this film. It is so both moving and such—gives us such understanding, Jon, about what you’re going through on a daily basis, how people see you and how you want to be seen, how you want to be treated. Talk a little more about that and why you made the film itself, why you’re part of this project.

JONATHAN NOVICK: Well, I made the film itself personally out of frustration, you know, as you might imagine. It was—basically, I had moved to New York City, and I had been living here for, you know, about a year, a year’s time. And it was just the encounters that I would experience—it’s not something new to me, but what was new was the frequency that it would occur. It would happen almost on a daily basis. And, you know, it would just be—it would become—it would get to a point where I would leave my apartment knowing that I was different, because no one would really let me forget it.

And it all culminated in one moment, when I was coming out of work and a gentleman physically jumped over me while a bunch of people looked on, which was probably one of the worst experiences of my life. But in that moment, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t yell at them, because that would make them laugh more. I couldn’t, you know, run after them and, like, fight them, because, you know, that’s not going to happen.

So it’s just realizing that I wanted to create something, because it’s like, OK, what’s the best thing I can do? The best thing I can do is, you know, do what I do, which is film. You know, I am a grad student. I’ve been studying film, and it’s something I’m passionate about. So I decided to create this work, and not only express myself, but be able to show other people exactly what I go through. And joining the Media Enabled Muskateers, joining this program, was the absolute perfect outlet to do so, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Now let’s turn to Maryam’s story. This is a film called Maryam’s Victory by our guest, who’s here in studio, just come in from Russia, Maryam Magomedova.

MARYAM MAGOMEDOVA: [translated] I was born with cerebral palsy. I am about to get my college diploma with honors. We came here because I couldn’t recite my poem at the competition. Let’s imagine I’m on a stage and reciting a poem by Ashik Veysel. I am on a long twisted road. I walk day and night. I started my journey the day I came into this world. I am walking from birth to death. I walk day and night. I walk even in my sleep, looking for reasons to wake up. I see everything, but I keep on walking. But I keep walking day and night. For years I’ve been wandering, in valleys, mountains and deserts, in foreign lands. I walk day and night. The road looks long, but the journey is only an instant. I walk day and night. I am surprised. Sometimes I laugh. Sometimes I cry. Only one step left. I walk day and night. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: There you have Maryam’s Victory, Maryam with us today—


AMY GOODMAN: —who has come all the way over from—from Moscow?


AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about why you made this film?

MARYAM MAGOMEDOVA: Well, first of all, I wanted to show that no matter if a person has a disability or not, he should be judged by his spark of talent, which exists in every person. And not only it’s a talent, not only a person can be talented, he can be the best. So, this was first message. And I also wanted to show that education is one of the tools, you know, how to lighten that spark of the talent in a person. So, it’s not only about my talent, but about my everyday struggle for education.

AMY GOODMAN: Which has been?

MARYAM MAGOMEDOVA: Which has been like for seven years of my life. I’m a student. I’ve got a degree in linguistics. So, that’s why I recited in Turkish, which you can see in my film. And now I’m studying law. I’m a law student. I’m a student in a law school. So, I want to advocate for people with disabilities in the future. I plan to go to Harvard Law School, so that people with disabilities will have more rights. And this project is a very good beginning for me, so I can expose the problems that we face every day.

AMY GOODMAN: Maryam Magomedova, one of the Russian students who has joined with American students, like Jonathan Novick, to portray their lives, to speak for themselves. And the people who are coordinating this project are our old colleague, Jon Alpert—not so old—from DCTV, Downtown Community Television, the multiple Emmy Award-winning filmmaker, and Olga Kravtsova, who has come over from Moscow. Jon, talk about how you conceived of this.

JON ALPERT: Well, we’re talking a lot about Ebola, Ebola, Ebola. There’s two people in the United States that have Ebola, none in Russia. There’s 80 million people in both countries that have disabilities. And so, the media could really do a much better job of portraying the needs and the talents of people with disabilities. And so, we thought this would be a good place to start. And also, our countries could do a better job of being friends with each other. Every country could do a better job looking for peace. And this is a good program that helps that. So it helps give people with disabilities a voice, and it also helps to promote peace.

AMY GOODMAN: Olga Kravtsova, how did you get involved?

OLGA KRAVTSOVA: I think we came to the idea, like, together, maybe, and we also had Karina Chupina, who is a U.N. expert on disabilities, and she has a disability herself. And she trains reporters—she also has a background in journalism—how to be sensitive about those issues, how to cover disabilities, you know, with good education and attitude. So we just thought it would be a great project, bringing professional and nonprofessional reporters together, bringing people with disabilities, with no disabilities together, and bringing Russians and Americans together.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to a clip from Natalia Ryzhova’s film, I Want, Therefore I Can. She explains her dream to be a Paralympic archery champion.

NATALIA RYZHOVA: [translated] When I was 13, I was electrocuted by 27,500 volts. I had both legs amputated. It was very difficult at first. Then I realized it didn’t change everything. I had to continue with my life. Life isn’t less interesting because of a disability. I plan to join the Paralympic Games. It’s my dream. I’m training for the next two years. I hope to win.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Natalia Ryzhova’s film, I Want, Therefore I Can. I want to turn right now to another clip that is part of this series. This is a clip of a video made by Donna Cappella called Midlife Disability: No Crystal Ball.

DONNA CAPPELLA: Hi. My name is Donna Cappella. And I want to do my own narration, but I hope I don’t mess it up like I messed up that joke. I want to tell you about my brain surgery, but I really don’t want to go backwards. You see, when I speak, people don’t listen to my words. They think, “What happened to her?” So, the scoop is, in 2005, I had a catastrophic stroke. My condition is called an AVM, arteriovenous malformation.

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to turn to a clip of a video made by Benjamin Rosloff called Can I Call You?

BENJAMIN ROSLOFF: My name is Benjamin, and I’m 22, and I’m autistic. I want to be a filmmaker and have a lot of my own ideas. I see films in my mind and know exactly what I want. I know who I would cast. I hear the music, and I see the scenes. Some things are hard for me, like writing, explaining things to others and making changes. I do know that I want to get married someday and have a family and a normal life.

Have you ever dated someone with autism?

WOMAN: No, I have not.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Benjamin Rosloff. Can I Call You? is the name of his film. In fact, Jon, you were his roommate, Jon Alpert, in Russia, when the group went to Russia. Now the group has come from Russia to the United States.

JON ALPERT: It was one of the most profound learning experiences of my life. I didn’t know that much about autism. Ben’s really intelligent. And I grew to appreciate his intelligence, his kindness and his value that he can bring to society.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon Novick, what has this project meant for you? You went to Russia?


AMY GOODMAN: So, what was that like for you?

JONATHAN NOVICK: It was amazing. I mean, being a part of—being a part of the project, in general, has been fantastic, because you encounter so many different people from different walks of life.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is it called Media Enabled Musketeers?

JONATHAN NOVICK: Media Enabled Muskateers, we have a slogan: “All for one, one for all.” We’re all together. We are all one person. We support each other through what we do, not only in life, but as filmmakers, as, you know, hopeful future, I don’t know, journalists or documentarians of the world. We’re in it together. And whether we’re all going to Russia or we’re all going to come to America, we’re in it together.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was your sense of people who are disabled, their treatment in Russia, as you come here from the United States?

JONATHAN NOVICK: Well, it seemed—one of the biggest things or one of the most discussed topics while we were in Russia was education. And it was looking at the separation of people who are physically or cognitively disabled into separate schools, these like separate private schools as opposed to staying in public education. There was a lot of conversation that happened around that. We visited one of these schools. We visited the office for accessibility issues and discussed that several times, so that was a [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: And, Maryam, for you coming here, you’ve been on a major journey. You’ve been to the Empire State Building, to the beach. Were you seeing the ocean for the first time?

MARYAM MAGOMEDOVA: Yes. Yes, I think so. And I touched my feet there.

AMY GOODMAN: And walking across the Brooklyn Bridge.

MARYAM MAGOMEDOVA: Yes, walking across the Brooklyn Bridge was actually my dream for four years. And I finally fulfilled it yesterday with Musketeer teams.

AMY GOODMAN: And what will you do when you go back to Russia?

MARYAM MAGOMEDOVA: Well, I will tell about this project. And I think that right now we can’t even fully comprehend the positive impact it will have. And I hope that I will bring the knowledge, the things that I learned here, and I will share them with my friends, with people that I know. And I hope that this will change things for better in my country.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. Jon, the website people can go to to see more of these videos? You had a big party at HBO on Friday where you showed like a dozen of them.

JON ALPERT: DCTVNY.org, our website, but if any fans of Democracy Now!, which I’m the biggest one, would like these as the—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re not that big, Jon

JON ALPERT: I am that big. Look at this. And all they need to do is contact Democracy Now!, and they can get the entire set of all these films. And make sure you send in your contribution to Democracy Now! when you do that.

AMY GOODMAN: All right, and to your local station, public television or radio. It’s been wonderful to be with you all. I want to thank Jonathan Novick, Maryam Magomedova. I also want to thank the coordinators of this project, our colleague right here, Jon Alpert, and Olga Kravtsova from Russia.

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