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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: When I Walk

I’m not always a big fan self-exploratory, therapeutic docs in which the filmmaker explores some aspect of their lives through cinema, but When I Walk, director Jason DaSilva’s wrenchingly autobiographic journey through the hell of his rapid physical deterioration after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis is an exception to that rule.

DaSilva was filming a vacation trip with his family in 2006 when he collapsed to the ground and found himself unable to get up again; from that moment on his previous life of traveling the world to make documentary films would never be the same. As part of coming to terms with the new and ever-shifting “normal” that would be the rest of his life, DaSilva followed his instinct, picked up his camera, and turned it on himself. This project could have devolved into the maudlin and self-absorbed; instead DaSilva’s strength and resilience, his determination to stay positive – bolstered in part by his relentlessly positive mother, who’s prone to calling him out on any over-privileged American kid whining and reminding him constantly that we only have one life to live, and have to make the most of it – is what shines through every frame of his story.

When I Walk follows DaSilva through diagnosis and endless medical tests, and cures both Western and otherwise, as he loses his strength and ability to make his body do what he wants it to do. His gait becomes erratic and halting; his coordination gets clumsier and clumsier; he’s forced to use a cane, then a walker, then finally a motorized scooter to get around. He has to deal with the loss of his sense of self, too; the beautiful women who flocked to him when he was healthy are nowhere to be found, and the challenges of continuing to pursue his lifelong dream of filmmaking force him to question whether he can continue to follow that path. In the midst of making a film about himself, he travels with his brother to India to attempt to make a short film, only to have to ultimately abandon that project. Yet still, he perseveres and dreams, fights his disease and seeks a cure, and pushes himself to finish this documentary, at least, no matter how big a mountain that may be to climb.

As DaSilva’s condition deteriorates his body, he’s also forced to come to terms with the inherent challenges of living in New York City as a disabled person. Coffee shops, stores and restaurants that he once would have entered without thinking about it are now closed to him by their lack of disabled access. Cars nearly run over his scooter on the street, irritated drivers blare their horns at the audacity of a man who can no longer walk daring to inconvenience their own traverse, most likely never pausing to consider that they might ever find themselves in a similar situation. Who would ever think that a healthy, energetic young person might suddenly find their world turned upside down? That’s the kind of thing that happens only to others … until, like DaSilva, you find it’s happened to you and your life will never be the same.

But then DaSilva finds that maybe life isn’t completely over, when he meets Alice Cook at an MS support group. Her mother also has MS, so she knows, at least to an extent, what she’s getting into, and DaSilva’s camera unflinchingly charts the course of their relationship through its peaks and valleys, doubts and fears. What will it mean to be in a long-term relationship with a man who ultimately might not be able to move, or even talk? Could they have children one day? And most of all, is she willing to take on the work and responsibility of being the person who’s committing to care for this man she loves, in sickness and in health, for better or worse? Her father seals the deal when she asks him if she should date a person with MS. I am, he said. I’m with your mother. It’s hard to argue with that.

When I Walk overcomes the risk of being gloomy or solipsistic by the sheer force of the personality of its director and subject, and most of all by the bravery and honesty with which both DaSilva and Cook are willing to turn the lens toward themselves, sharing their moments both lovely and sad as they seek to overcome the obstacles and find a way to make life sweet in spite of this unexpected fork in the road that’s made of his life something completely different than he ever thought it would be. It’s a lovely, inspiring film, deeply personal and honest, and it’s a privilege to watch from the wings as DaSilva comes to accept that this, now, is what his life is, and he will find a way to continue to make it an amazing journey.

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas