Extended Interview with Members of the Media Enabled Musketeers on Disability Rights & Filmmaking

Web ExclusiveAugust 10, 2018
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A new film premiering tonight in New York follows the Media Enabled Musketeers, American and Russian filmmakers with disabilities, as they make original films to tell their stories. “All For One” tells the story of 35 Russians and 13 Americans who collaborated to create films about everyday issues to empower themselves, educate the public and provide more opportunities for people with disabilities. We continue our conversation with Jon Novick and Ben Rosloff, filmmakers with Media Enabled Musketeers, as well as Jon Alpert, co-founder of Downtown Community Television Center, or DCTV, the country’s oldest community media center.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. While tensions between the U.S. and Russia continue to heat up, one group of filmmakers has found a way to strengthen ties between Russia and the United States through a common bond: their disabilities. A new film premiering tonight in New York follows the Media Enabled Musketeers, American and Russian filmmakers with disabilities, as they make original films to tell their stories. This is a clip from the documentary All For One, featuring two of our guests, Jon Novick and Ben Rosloff, speaking in Moscow after learning about the struggles disabled people face there.

JONATHAN NOVICK: The things we saw today have Ben really upset.

BEN ROSLOFF: In the United States, they allow disabled people to go to regular schools. As for Russia, they don’t. They just keep them in special schools. It’s sad. You know, it’s like saying, “No disabled people allowed.” It’s like “No dogs allowed.”

ANDREW ANGULO: I remember Ben said the nicest thing to me. You looked at me and said, “Do you think there is a way I can lift you up, and maybe someone else can help put your legs straight and move your legs, and we can get you back walking again?”

BEN ROSLOFF: Maybe, yeah, well, let’s just test. Can you try to move your leg while on the wheelchair?

ANDREW ANGULO: My injury is in my spinal cord. You’re doing everything you can, like mentally, but nothing’s happening.

JONATHAN NOVICK: If someone came up to you and told you, like, “OK, like today I’m going to—I’m going to cure your autism,” like how would you convey to them—what would you say explaining how hard it is?

BEN ROSLOFF: Well, it’s not going to be that easy. As a person who has autism, I want to speak cr—I want to speak cr—uch! I want to speak clearly. Clearly. I’m sorry. Yeah, it’s—it’s a problem.

ANDREW ANGULO: You are doing everything you can, and, you know, in fact I admire that.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Andrew Angulo—he’s a filmmaker from Los Angeles—together with Ben Rosloff and Jon Novick in the film All For One, that’s directed by Jon Alpert. And they’ve recently returned from Russia. Jon Novick, if you can talk about what you learned from your dialogue with Russian filmmakers and people in Russia? I mean, here you are doing outreach for the de Blasio administration around accessibility and just the lives of people with disabilities in New York. What did you learn in Russia?

JONATHAN NOVICK: Well, I think that examining, let’s say, the two of them parallel to each other, that I’d say as far as disability civil rights, we are further along in the United States. And what we’re seeing right now in Russia is, I think, a lot of grassroots, a lot of parents with children that have disabilities kind of taking the lead because they are empowered to do so, that they must, and that every inch needs to be fought for. Whereas here we have, you know, a little bit more, I guess, resources, not only from the nonprofit sector, but branches of government. We have the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal law passed in 1990 to protect the rights of people with disabilities. So I just think that there is a lot of local grassroots and a lot of passion, that I think is something that was really enlightening to take back to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, talk about where you grew up.

JONATHAN NOVICK: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: And your parents made sure you were in regular public schools?

JONATHAN NOVICK: Yeah, in public school. So I am a little person. You know, I have achondroplastic dwarfism. But my parents do not, and that’s actually very common. Achondroplasia is a genetic mutation that occurs. And for this reason, my parents had no experience with this,. And when I was growing up, they wanted to make sure that I was as independent as possible, that I was, you know, attending public school. And I was in public school. I was in—you know, I wasn’t in a particular classroom. I was with other people that didn’t have any disabilities, at least seemingly.

And as a result of this, a form of accommodation that I had was I had an aide. It was a woman—her name was Mrs. Castellano, and if she’s watching, a shout-out to Mrs. Castellano. But she basically was with me for anything that I needed, whether it was accommodations for not being able to carry all of my books or a little bit of help organizing. Actually, when I was younger, I had a lot of difficulty holding a pencil, so I needed someone to take notes for me, so she was a scribe. I still tried, because I had to get that practice in, but ultimately she was able to provide more detailed notes.

AMY GOODMAN: Wow. So she was with you until what grade?

JONATHAN NOVICK: Well, she was with me until sixth grade. And then, in seventh grade, I had a new aide, and I kind of had different aides every year until the end of ninth grade. So my sophomore year of high school was the first time I didn’t have an aide. It was a time when I was completely independent. I could take my own notes. I could carry my own books. I could make my own way. And it was a—

AMY GOODMAN: And what did that feel like?

JONATHAN NOVICK: It felt amazing. It felt—honestly, it did. I remember just feeling awesome. I remember—because it just kind of felt like—you know, I was very thankful. And especially now, in hindsight, I was very thankful to have this assistance, and I don’t think I understood the immense help it was at the time. But at the same time, you know, as a kid, you’re just like, “I want to hang out with my friends, and I don’t want anybody”—like, you know, “I don’t want teachers around me.” And it was always that. I was that person where, you know, like there was always somebody, a faculty member, with me, so I felt like I couldn’t truly be a kid. So I just felt like there was this balance between it. And when I finally was deemed independent enough to not have an aide, it was just great.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben, you also went to public school. You did a film, that is excerpted in this film, on autism.

BEN ROSLOFF: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your parents’ decision and what that meant to you. You grew up here in New York.

BEN ROSLOFF: Well, I was originally born in Queens, and then, a few years later, I moved to Great Neck, when I was like 3 or 4. Actually, I think I was 3 at that time. And like before, like I didn’t go to the same school as my older sibling, my brother, went to, well, in Great Neck, so I was sent to a special school that time, due to me being autism. Like that time, I didn’t know that I was autistic. I didn’t know that I had a disability. I thought I was non-disabled like everyone else. And, I mean, I didn’t know what autism was that time. So, I was sent to a school that was a special school that was not part of Great Neck but down east in Long Island, somewhere in Long Island, New York. But, however, my parents eventually fought for me to go to a regular school. So, yeah, I started like—I started going to a regular school before I turned 6 years old, actually. I was like in first grade. So, I thought my family did a great job about that, and it was a good skill for me to get used to meeting like people who were non-disabled. It’s a perfect way to fit in with people who are non-disabled.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is Part 2 of our conversation. And after we finished Part 1 one, you said, “There is a critical point I wanted to make that I didn’t get to make yet.” And this was when we were talking about you going to Russia.

BEN ROSLOFF: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. When I was in Russia, well, I got to meet new people there, not just be at the film festival, but meet new people and learn all the things they do, what we don’t do in America. And it’s pretty interesting, actually. But the thing that upset me there is like, when we brought Andrew Angulo like with us—is that correct?

AMY GOODMAN: Mm-hmm.

JONATHAN NOVICK: Yeah, Angulo.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the clip we just saw of the three of you in your hotel room talking.

BEN ROSLOFF: Yeah. Well, when we brought him, like most of the ramps and the wheel—like there was no wheelchair access accessible, so like we had to keep lifting him up stairs and down stairs into every building. And also, the other—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me go to this point, because we have a clip from your film, All For One, exploring how accessible various parts of Moscow and New York are for people with disabilities. This is a clip, when you arrive at Moscow’s Red Square. Andrew Angulo navigates the square in this wheelchair.

ANDREW ANGULO: It’s a little tricky. You’ve got to watch all the little cracks. Front wheel can get caught, and I’d be flying forward. So, as much as I can, I try to do a little wheelie coming down. There are efforts to try to make Moscow accessible, but being able to go down something like this would be extremely sketchy. I would be quite afraid.

JONATHAN NOVICK: We’re going to take our chances with this 20-lane highway instead. This cop is shutting down Moscow to keep us from getting killed.

AMY GOODMAN: OK. This was unbelievable. That was Media Enabled Musketeers filmmaker Andrew Angulo navigating Red Square in Moscow from a wheelchair. In the clip, a police officer escorts him and others across, to say the least, a multi-lane, very busy street, because facilities in and around Red Square are not easily accessible. Jon, if you can take us further on this trip, I mean, and what happened?

JONATHAN NOVICK: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what he had to do to get into these subways in a wheelchair and across the street?

JONATHAN NOVICK: Well, we never rode the subway, first of all, because it’s not accessible. But we basically—so there’s these—the scene that you just saw was us looking at these underground tunnels that they have. So, large highway, as you saw. There would be underground tunnels that go through, and their answer to accessibility was slapping on these plastic bars that were expected to catch the wheels of a wheelchair. But it’s at steeper than like a 45-degree angle. If you actually—

AMY GOODMAN: It was steeper than a ski slope in the Olympics.

JONATHAN NOVICK: Yeah, it was—but also it goes down, and then it goes flat, and it goes down. So, basically, you have like an X Games thing happening, where if somebody were to go down, they would presumably fly off after it tapers off, and then—I don’t know. You can actually—there’s actually a video of someone in Russia—obviously, I don’t know what it’s called, but somebody who actually tries, like a person who does not use a wheelchair just getting in one to see: “What would happen if I did it? And then, just constantly, it’s like a 2-minute video of just incredible wipeouts, of like if someone actually did it.

But this was a common theme that we ran into, where there would be an attempt to—like an accessible attempt to address issues within infrastructure, but they inherently required the assistance of another person. So, if you want to make something truly accessible, the person with the disability needs to be able to navigate it themselves. And this was a theme that we kept seeing, that we constantly needed to assist Andrew and go through—there was a lot of challenges. Because of the infrastructure, he needed to be, you know, assisted into buildings, down sidewalks, everything.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, that’s Moscow. I mean, you’re in charge of outreach here in New York City. Our colleague at Democracy Now!, Robby Karran, uses a wheelchair. He’s constantly posting, you know, trying to get into subways and elevators broken down. We’re at 23rd Street here; there is no elevator. But what it means to get by and what efforts are being made?

JONATHAN NOVICK: Well, I mean, so, for the MTA, the MTA is actually state-run, so that is not run by the Mayor’s Office. There are, you know, I think, forward attempts with the recent appointment of Andy Byford. He seems to be taking a very proactive stance on not only improving the entire subway system, but specifically accessibility into subway systems. So everything is being built new.

Previously, I think on the—we saw a clip of Commissioner Victor Calise talking about the age of the subway system, which provides a lot of issues because there’s the size of it and then the age of it and the difficulty in actually getting down and providing access. But you look at anything that’s being built new, there’s accessibility built into it. The 2nd Avenue Subway station already has accessibility built into it, with elevators, and as we continue, we will continue doing that. But we’re looking for solutions and how to fix it and continue and build onto it, to make sure that there’s accessibility considered.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon Alpert, you’ve made many films. This film, for you, what it meant? As a differently abled person yourself. I mean, I think that issue of—and I think Ben raised it, and also Jon—you know, people have all sorts of disabilities, whether you see them or you don’t.

JON ALPERT: I’m quite sensitive to this, because my father, for the last 20 years of his life, was severely disabled, had mobility problems, and his identity changed from what it was to a person with a disability. That’s how people looked at him. The opportunities that he had had earlier in his life before he became disabled disappeared. It affected our whole family. I think everybody’s family has somebody who has a disability in it, and I think that all of us, at some point in our lives, we’re going to become disabled.

AMY GOODMAN: My dad, who was in a wheelchair, when I said to him, “What is different for you, being in a wheelchair?” he said, “No one looks at me anymore.” He said, “People actually avert their eyes.” “You think you’re being polite,” he said—when a person looks away from you. He said, “Can you imagine going down the street?”—usually you make eye contact, you nod to someone—”Everyone’s quickly looking in another direction. You no longer make—you know, have person-to-person contact,” he said.

JONATHAN NOVICK: If I may, actually, Jon, you touched on a very interesting point. So this idea that as quality of life increases and as technology increases, everybody is living longer, and we are, at one point or another, experiencing disability. You don’t have to be born with a disability to experience it, whether it be temporary or as you get older if you experience issues walking, issues hearing, issues seeing, and develop a disability over time. And I think it’s important that we, you know, plan for this, so thinking about disability, thinking about what disability means.

And ultimately, I think you can actually attribute it more to the environment around you. I think with proper accommodations—as we we talked about Andrew, talking about the difficulties that he faced in Moscow, he doesn’t have a disability if his environment allows him to move freely throughout it. And I think that it’s just kind of important to note that, that there’s this stigma around disability, avoiding eye contact and things like that, but I think with a properly accessible environment, it can be a total game changer.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Ben, as we wrap up, because I know you have to head off for work, and you’re very diligent about getting to work on time, why you got involved in the media as a form of expression for you?

BEN ROSLOFF: Well, when I was in middle school, there was—there was like a TV studio. And so, a teacher named Mr. Robert Gluck, he helped me out like learn how to do certain kinds of media. Like during my high school year, I was like doing camera work, but I didn’t know about editing at that time, until I had help from one of his assistants, actually, from school, actually. But so, yeah, I used to learn—but then, that time, I was like doing Final Cut Pro, but then when I interned at Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities, Jonathan Novick here taught me how to like do Premiere Pro, actually. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Jon, you’re a film editor?

JONATHAN NOVICK: Yes.

BEN ROSLOFF: It’s all thanks to him, actually. So, when I worked at a public—so, now that I started working at a public relations program, Maslansky + Partners, there was some—there was like—well, during the interview, like I almost forgot what key, like how to cut, and like they just told me to just click on it. But then, suddenly, I remembered what—and they were like, “Wow! I didn’t know that you can cut like that. I didn’t know what it was.” And like they started learning the things that you taught me.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jon, what does it mean for you to be able to represent yourself, like in the film you made about being a dwarf getting around New York City, and teaching others to be able to speak in their own voices, with their own words, describing their own challenges?

JONATHAN NOVICK: I think that it is a very cathartic experience, I think, being able to empower people with disabilities, without disabilities, to voice their issues that they’re having, experiences that they’re having, and really put a lot of energy and effort into their craft.

AMY GOODMAN: Which brings us to you, Jon Alpert. The whole purpose of DCTV, of Downtown Community Television, in this old, hundred-year-old firehouse down—right near ground zero, September 11th. Yes, the firehouse opened to help people. Democracy Now! was there at that time. This converted firehouse, what your dream is for it, this place you’ve built for decades?

JON ALPERT: I think it’s to give opportunities to everybody, people of all different types of income, all different racial backgrounds, born in different places, people with all different types of abilities. And it’s the same thing that you’re doing. You have us on the show. We’re all doing this together, because we understand the power of media. We understand that it can be a great equalizer and level the playing field. You’re doing it every day. And we appreciate it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you all for being with us. Jon Alpert is the director of All For One. And, Jon Novick and Ben Rosloff, we follow you on your journey to Moscow as you join with filmmakers with disabilities in both places, large group of people, to examine the challenges that you face, from Moscow to New York City.

JON ALPERT: Can Ben sing? Can he sing a song?

AMY GOODMAN: Ben, can you sing? I didn’t know you could.

JON ALPERT: Ben’s a great singer. You know, can I just—Ben was—what play were you in? You were in The Tempest?

BEN ROSLOFF: Oh, yeah. I was in William Shakespeare’s final play called The Tempest, actually, in—when I was like in EPIC Players, actually.

JON ALPERT: This was at The Egg [sic] theater. This is a very prestigious, off-Broadway—and what was your part?

BEN ROSLOFF: For Prince Ferdinand. And actually, the name of the theater was actually called The Flea Theater.

JON ALPERT: The Flea, sorry, The Flea.

BEN ROSLOFF: Yeah, I—

JON ALPERT: See, I can’t—Ben remembers things I can’t. Sorry.

BEN ROSLOFF: Yeah. I know sometimes we make mistakes about certain names or where we are. But yeah, I was Prince Ferdinand, the son of King Alonso, in the country Naples, which is in Italy—which is in Italy, actually. And yeah, I got—so, yeah, so now it was—first it was camera work that I did, which is filming; second, editing; and now acting. It’s all the three that I’m doing right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Wow! So do you want to take us out with a song?

BEN ROSLOFF: Sure. I will do so right now. OK. [singing] Don’t lose your way / With each passing day / You’ve come so far / Don’t throw it away / Live believing / Dreams are for weaving / Wonders are waiting to start / Live your story / Faith, hope and glory / Hold to the truth in your heart / If we hold on together / I know our dreams will never die / Dreams see us through to forever / Where clouds roll by, for you and I.

JONATHAN NOVICK: All right!

AMY GOODMAN: Wow! There you have Ben Rosloff, singer, actor, editor, filmmaker. Jon Novick, I don’t know about your singing abilities, but—

BEN NOVICK: Oh, yeah. We can go around the table.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you want to sing something?

BEN NOVICK: Oh, no!

AMY GOODMAN: But is a filmmaker and also does community outreach for the Office of Disabilities in New York City. And Jon Alpert, founder, with his wife Keiko Tsuno, of DCTV, Downtown Community Television, and great Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. This latest film is called All For One, and it premieres tonight here in New York at the Albert Maysles theater.

I’m Amy Goodman. To see Part 1 one of this discussion, go to democracynow.org. Thanks so much for joining us.

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