After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia premieres in the U.S. on HBO tonight (October 29).
The doc marks the directorial debut for filmmaker James Redford (pictured), son of Sundance Institute founder and actor/director Robert, and looks at how a great number of dyslexic students end up passing through the American education system without having their disorder identified.
Here, Redford tells realscreen how his battle to raise awareness for dyslexia ended up becoming a personal one.
What inspired you to make a documentary about dyslexia?
Well, my son Dylan is dyslexic and from first grade on, which was seven years old, my wife and I started on a journey in which we faced the reality that our son was almost functionally illiterate.
The journey from that moment in his childhood to where he is now – aged 21 and the general manager for his radio station in college – is one I never in a million years would have thought was possible.
What were your aims in making the film?
There were basic things that I wanted to get to. Firstly, a baseline awareness of what dyslexia is and what it isn’t. One in five people out there in the world have dyslexia – 20% of the world’s population – and yet most people think it is just a mere matter of reading backwards or being slow and difficult.
And certainly being “stupid” is the number one stereotype that a lot of dyslexics have to face, because we judge people in our society on how quick they read and write, not necessarily by how good their original ideas are – that comes later in life.
So the movie really attacks that stereotype. It also shows Drs Sally and Bennett Shaywitz, who run the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. They were pioneers in establishing, through MRI brain scans, what’s happening in the brain among the dyslexic population, and how the brain is wired differently for dyslexics.
What personal challenges did you face in making the film?
I had a personal challenge in that the film initially was always supposed to be a short in-house documentary that would go to pediatricians, child psychiatrists, neurologists and school administrators, an in-house campaign that gets the film to people who are on the frontline.
Then the film started to evolve into something deeper and longer, with myself and my wife and my son [involved], and then Karen Pritzker, my producer, had herself and her daughter in it. When that decision was made, the film took on its own quality and became longer, richer and deeper.
Then we had some extraordinary testimony from accomplished dyslexics looking back on their lives, it became an hour-long, and then HBO – who I have worked with for a decade – looked at it and purchased it, and then it got into Sundance.
So it was a big thing for us to suddenly to have our personal life and our family in it. Everybody thought about it – the kids, my wife and Karen – and I think we all felt very strongly, particularly the kids, that we have gotten a lot of support and guidance that somehow giving back and sharing [our] stories would be well worth any of the qualms we had about sharing our personal things in a widely distributed film.
Did you meet anyone who was reticent to be interviewed or to talk about their dyslexia?
I think it’s important to say that this film is unabashedly an advocacy film about trying to get society to think more broadly about dyslexia and also making a more hopeful movie, because also there is a feeling out there at times that dyslexia is nothing but a downward spiral, a challenge and a sobering, depressing topic, and it’s just not.
There are a lot of very bright, positive dyslexics out there. This film was really meant to have hope and to show hope, so we wanted to select people that would represent that sort of experience, that were comfortable in front of the camera, and that were okay sharing.
Some of them I would say were not necessarily comfortable with the spoken language, and they would struggle. Tyler Lucas, the surgeon, he talks in this film about how frustrating it is that it slows his speech down. Some dyslexics have a lot of trouble articulating, but I think what the film represents that it is much more the norm: dyslexics come to face the challenge and own it, and move on, rather than letting it defeat them. That’s the spirit of the movie.
Beyond airing on HBO in the U.S., are you looking to release the film internationally?
I know that we are going to be going into Canada. I have a team that is helping me with the international distribution. We have a premiere in Scotland coming up in November, and I had an inquiry from Latin America.
There’s a question of sub-titles throwing an extra layer of challenge for any dyslexic who wants to see the movie. I think for international [versions of the film] will we dub. But we’re going to take it as far as we can – this isn’t an American issue, it’s global, and it affects an extraordinary number of people.
Will the film get a UK release?
We are going to have a special event in London in 2013 and hopefully build distribution around that event.
You have produced several documentaries before, such as The Kindness of Strangers and Mann V. Ford, but this is your first effort as a director. Do you think you’ll do more?
Yes it is. I’m currently directing two documentaries right now – one’s called Toxic Hot Seat, looking at chemical flame retardants in furniture, which are toxic and don’t work. And that’s in development with HBO. And then the other one I’ve just started shooting is called Aces, and that’s looking at the long-term consequences of childhood trauma.
Did you find when you were making The Big Picture that having the Redford name helped?
I think it did. I’m fortunate in that my father has established himself as a quality human being, first and foremost.
He’s very well known and I think when people meet the Redford name, it comes for the most part with respect, and I’ve tried to honor that. Sometimes it can work the other way around, but I think that I’ve been very fortunate.
The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia airs tonight (October 29) on HBO at 7 p.m. EST, during National Dyslexia Month.