We Regret to Inform you… –Interview with the directors: Dr. Heidi Janz & Eva Colmers

By Stacey Francis

Winning Awards and Breaking Barriers

On May 14, 2016 the short film, We Regret to Inform you… won the EDA Award for Best Female-Directed Documentary Short at the DOXA Documentary Film Festival. The EDA Award is presented by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists and is named in honor of a founding member’s mother.

We Regret to Inform You… offers an unidealistic and unashamed look at what it means to be both “disabled” and “productive” as it follows Dr. Heidi Janz, throughout her day. Janz requires physical support in her day to day life – yet she was rejected from receiving disability benefits because she holds a PhD and is a former university professor. The message the CPP-D sends is that one must be both disabled and unproductive in order to receive disability benefits.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Janz after a screening of the film at DOXA Documentary Film Festival. I was asked to conduct an interview with the film’s co-directors, Dr. Janz and Eva Colmers on behalf of the Cerebral Palsy Association of BC.  The interviews were conducted via email.

 

Dr. Heidi Janz

Regret_Janz-and-Colmers

Dr. Heidi Janz is a writer/playwright whose most-recently produced plays include Voices at Dying, Dying to be Heard, produced in 2006 for the 16th International Congress on the Care of the Terminally Ill; and The Book of Jobes, first produced by Kompany Family Theatre and Lone Sparrow Productions for the 2011 Edmonton Fringe Theatre Festival. Janz is an adjunct professor with the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre and the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta, specializing in the field of Disability Ethics. She was named Global TV’s Woman of Vision in May 2013.

 

In the interview, Janz describes herself as, a crip/disability ethicist/academic/playwright. In short, my life is an oxymoron.Here is more of what she had to say:

SF: Have you ever acted in, directed, or taken part in, any of the plays you wrote? If so, how was it?

HJ: Actually, I’ve written four plays, but I’ve never directed any of them. The closest I’ve come to directing a play is to serve as a “crip coach” for Temporarily Able-Bodied (TAB) actors who have been cast to play characters with disabilities in my plays. [For a more in-depth look at Janz’s thoughts on this process click here]

SF: Can you tell me the process in which you went through to decide you wanted to create We Regret to Inform You

HJ: It really wasn’t so much a decision as it was a series of “coincidences,” which, I believe, was actually providence. The day I received the rejection of my appeal, I was discussing this development with a close friend of mine, Shafer Parker. Exasperated with how preposterous CPP-D’s conclusion was, Shafer suggested that I make a YouTube video mocking the idea that my ability to go to university and obtain some employment had suddenly rendered me non-disabled. I floated this idea by my friends on Facebook, and, in response, received a private message from my friend Pat Lagner (a fellow writer and DATS [Paratransit] driver), saying that there was someone I NEEDED to meet. That “someone” turned out to be respected local filmmaker, Eva Colmers. Pat arranged a meeting, and Eva and I clicked immediately. So we decided to make this film. We initially planned to go the traditional route of applying for film-development grants, etc., but then, Eva “just happened” to mention her new project to her friend Bonnie Thompson, a producer with the NFB [National Film Board of Canada]. Intrigued, Bonnie asked to meet with Eva and me. At the end of that meeting, Bonnie told us she thought this was a film that needed to be made. So Bonnie invited us to submit a formal proposal to the NFB. The proposal was accepted, and some two years later, here we are.

SF: How were you able to bring so much attention to the film?

HJ: I think that, first and foremost, the attention that the film has received has been due to the efforts of the NFB’s phenomenal marketing and publicity team. That’s one of the many reasons we’re so fortunate that this is an NFB film. Also, I think that the film speaks to issues of labeling and stereotyping that go far beyond my particular situation, and this makes the film resonate with a whole lot of people.

SF: What was the highlight of directing the film?

HJ: For me, the highlight of co-directing the film was having the opportunity to work with filmmakers as talented, determined, and generous as Eva Colmers and Bonnie Thompson. Both of these women are immensely accomplished and respected filmmakers, who have probably forgotten more about filmmaking than I will ever know about it. And yet, they were both absolutely determined that I be fully involved in the production side of the film, as well as in front of the camera. This was NOT an easy task by any means, given the almost universal inaccessibility of film editing suites and recording studios. But, thanks to the determination of Eva, Bonnie, and the entire NFB team, we found ways to make it happen.

SF: What was the most challenging aspect?

HJ: Before I did this film, I had no idea how physically and emotionally exhausting shooting a little 11-minute film could be. Our main filming day (we had other, shorter filming days) went from 5:30am to 9:00pm. I remember getting up the next day and realizing that I hadn’t felt this physically and mentally exhausted since I’d spent three back-to-back fourteen-hour days writing the Comprehensive Exams for my PhD! It made me think that, if we had been doing a feature-length film, I probably wouldn’t have survived!

SF: Who came up with the original title for the film Boxes are for Dead People

HJ: That would be ME, with my twisted sense of humor. But Eva liked that title too.

SF: What is the main thing you would like people to take away from the film? 

 

I hope that people come away from the film realizing that it’s never a good idea to make judgments about people that are based solely on one aspect of their identity. – Dr. Heidi Janz

 

SF: Would you create and direct more documentaries? 

HJ: Absolutely. In fact, Eva and I are already thinking and talking about possible ideas for another film project.

SF: You mentioned that you are working towards making film studios more accessible. How is that going? 

HJ: I think a good metaphor for the process of working to make film studios more accessible is to say that it’s like trying to empty the Pacific Ocean with an eyedropper! Having said that, though, I do think that, through our work on WRTIY, we have at least STARTED the process by raising awareness.

SF: At the end of the film it states that you were eventually approved for disability benefits. What did it take for you to finally be approved? 

HJ: After my initial rejection by CPP-D, I filed an appeal based on documentation I’d gathered from my employers at the UofA, citing the extensive accommodations I required just to be able to work. That appeal was also rejected on the exact same grounds as the original application. After the rejection of my appeal, I was going to give up, because I felt like I’d used up all my “ammo”. But a friend from undergrad who’d heard about my saga with CPP-D contacted me and asked if she could ask her Dad, who’s a lawyer, if he could help out in any way. My friend’s Dad agreed to take on my case, and, after almost a year of legal back and forth, CPP-D reversed its decision and granted me benefits.

SF: What sort of response have you received from individuals who have seen the film? 

 

 I would say that the response to the film has been very positive. A lot of people seem to identify with being labelled or ‘boxed in’ in one way or another. – Dr. Heidi Janz

 

SF: Does the scenario resonate with them?

HJ: Definitely. Even if they can’t necessarily relate to the disability aspect of it, most people can relate to having people view them as only ‘this’ or ‘ that’.

SF:  How did it feel to win the award and what does the award mean to you? 

HJ: It’s very humbling and very gratifying to receive this kind of recognition for our work. To me, it’s an indication that the film IS resonating with people, which, in turn, means that Eva and I have done our jobs as filmmakers.

 

Eva Colmers

BIO EVA COLMERS2016

Eva Colmers is an independent filmmaker who has written, directed and produced 12 award-winning short films in the dramatic and experimental genre including 2.57k, Granny Baby, The Weightless Traveller, End of the Rope, Luz and No Problem. She has also written and directed three documentaries for the National Film Board of Canada: We Regret to Inform You…, The Elder Project and The Enemy Within.

 

SF: It is apparent that you have directed several documentaries. What made you want to become a director of such films?

EC: I read, hear or see something that upsets my sense of justice and motivates me to explore the subject matter within a documentary film.

SF: What made you want to co-direct We Regret to Inform You…?

EC: We Regret to Inform You … is all about breaking people’s false expectation of ability and disability. Sure, I have more substantial experience in film directing than Heidi but we all have ability and disabilities and we wanted to illustrate that by sharing the directing position.

SF:  How did you get it into DOXA?

EC: The NFB is the producer of WRTIY and they select strong documentary film festivals to submit their NFB-made docs to.

SF: What was the highlight of directing the film?

EC: For me it was probably the editing sessions. When all the hours of shot footage was cut down and the essence became clear. Heidi and I had a very good working relationship with our editor Scott Parker who attentively and creatively shaped our vision.

SF: What was the most challenging aspect?

EC: Verbal communication between Heidi and me was sometimes a bit tricky as Heidi’s speech is affected by her cerebral palsy. However, the more time I spent with Heidi, the more I understood her way of speaking. It never was a barrier, it only required a bit more time and patience from both of us to fully understand each other.

SF: What is the main thing you would like people to take away from the film?

 

People are beautifully complex and we all have our abilities and disabilities. Putting people into categories and check-boxes is preventing us from seeing the full picture of their rich, complex human being. – Eva Colmers

 

SF: What sort of response have you received from individuals who have seen the film?

EC: Overwhelmed and honored by so much positive feedback. People with so-called disability are delighted to see themselves reflected on the screen. So-called abled people are surprised and even embarrassed to admit how little they knew about the rich life of people with “disabilities”.

SF:  How did it feel to win the award and what does the award mean to you?

EC: Fantastic to receive such public and international endorsement for our work. It is a huge honor to receive the EDA award which motivates me to go write and direct more meaningful, journalistic documentaries.

 

Read a review of the film here.

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