Documentary Film Synopsis
Imagine being told that because of your “special need” you will not amount to anything in life; that your unique human gifts are not valued, and that greater society will do little or nothing to help you develop those gifts and share them with the world. Imagine being told that were you a daffodil, you would never bloom.
This is the caustic subtext of exclusive education, and THE MAGIC CHAIR challenges this view and aims to expose it for the fallacy that it is, not by strident discourse and talking heads, but by quiet contemplation and observation of a primary school whose work of sixty years has been to embrace the young children who most need help and lift them up.
Unlike many schools where the strengths and learning and emotional needs of children with disabilities are often ignored or misunderstood, the students at St. Declan’s receive an individualized education inspired by the concept of cura personalis or “care of the whole person.” In a break from traditional special education programs, children attend St. Declan’s School for only two or three years, during which their teachers help them to gain the social skills and self-confidence they need to return to their mainstream schools and thrive. By teaching to each student’s strengths rather than dwelling on their limitations, St. Declan’s helps its students break out of the “prison” that many young children with special needs find themselves trapped within. Many successful St. Declan’s alumni directly attribute their success in life to the few years they spent at St. Declan’s and the respect, care, and attention they received there. Without St. Declan’s, they say, they might never have completed school, attended university, or found their way in the world.
Engaging with the final human rights battle; the rights of the disabled, THE MAGIC CHAIR documentary tells the story of young students with special needs as they spend a year at the St. Declan’s School in Dublin, developing hidden capacities, talents, and strengths that have not been recognized or supported by their mainstream schools. The film begins as summer wanes and a new school year commences. New friendships are forged, new difficulties arise, and throughout it all teachers and parents struggle to reach each child and help them bloom.
Comprehensive access to St. Declan’s School allows us to capture intimate portraits of the students, who can often be found waiting in a “magic chair” outside the principal’s office. Instead of being a disciplinary tool, this “magic chair” is a place where students await understanding and support; await compassion and the individual attention they need to grow and thrive. At St. Declan’s School, they will get it, and we will capture the transformative power of the school through their growth and discoveries.
As seasons change, we tag along on daily bus rides and as students prepare for and perform their annual Christmas Play. We sit by their sides as they grapple with their lessons and when they fly into rages and struggle to maintain control, when their teachers must intervene and bridge them back to a calmer place. Emotion courses through the school like energy; it is a passionate place, a vibrant place, a place where great victories happen, and small ones too. Where children take two steps forward for every one step back, and where their principal, teachers, and special needs assistants refuse to give up on the possibility of forward progress.
As spring blooms outside St. Declan’s walls, the school year draws to a close. A rest is needed by all; by students, by parents, by teachers, by all who labor in what at times seems an endless struggle. But there is also great joy and dignity at another year’s work done, with some children leaving St. Declan’s behind for good and moving on to thrive in the outside world.
Despite Dublin’s often cloudy skies, hope never wanes, for the work of St. Declan’s – and the human faces behind it all – is what our film will reveal; everyday heroes working to ensure that these young children have a chance to silence the mainstream teacher who once dared to tell a profoundly dyslexic young boy that “some daffodils will never bloom”. That young boy attended St. Declan’s School and proved that teacher wrong; he graduated from university this past year with the goal of founding his own school for children with special needs.
THE MAGIC CHAIR began when, after seeing my film “Lost Child?” Professor Victoria Graf PhD., a leading advocate for inclusive education in the U.S., asked me to partner with her in the making of a documentary film about St. Declan’s School in Dublin. Professor Graf spoke glowingly of St. Declan’s children and teachers and, intrigued by the possibilities, I agreed to visit the school, flying all night from my home in sunny Los Angeles and arriving in Dublin bleary-eyed and exhausted on a rainy, windy morning.
Stepping out into the weather, Professor Graf meets me with a cab and we drive through the pouring rain…along the river…buildings weighed down with history crowding up against the streets. I stare out at Dublin and wonder why I’ve come all this way to visit a school…to find a story…and I feel, in the moment, that I have made a mistake in coming here, in misleading Professor Graf. The cab finally stops in front of an imposing Victorian house hiding behind a wrought iron fence and, dodging the raindrops, we step up to an over-sized blue door with a shiny brass knob…and a child’s drawing in a small window nearby…a little drawing of a tree and a cat. I have two cats…and a small son in America who I worry about every moment…and the door opens and we step inside…
I feel something move inside me, and I know immediately that Professor Graf is right; that there are sacred places in the world, places where the sanctity and beauty of life – all life, no matter how diminished in the eyes of those who consider themselves “normal” – is known and cherished. And that St. Declan’s School is one of these places.
As I see it, my job as a filmmaker is to seek out stories that can change the world and then figure out how best to tell them. St. Declan’s story can change the world and, while spending a week with the children and teachers of St. Declan’s School, I find my commitment to the work I began with “Lost Child?” growing. I see my intellectually disabled younger sister Alyssa in every child in the classrooms; see my own parents in every mother and father who comes and goes with worried and frightened eyes; see my own son – so small now and not yet in school – in every little boy. And I am hooked. This is a film that I must make, and I leave Ireland with a new passion; to share the inspiring children, parents, and teachers of St. Declan’s School with the world.
My greatest teacher, the late film actress Nina Foch, once told me that the best work is always personal. I couldn’t agree more strongly, and THE MAGIC CHAIR is nothing, if not personal, for me. It is also moving, inspirational, and sobering. It is a story that needs to be told, and I hope you will join us in making sure that it is.
Transmedia / Interactive Project Elements
THE MAGIC CHAIR is a multi-year interactive project whose goal is to expand the understanding of and acceptance by society of individuals with disabilities. To accomplish this goal the project includes:
- An OBSERVATIONAL DOCUMENTARY telling the compelling stories of primary school students at St. Declan’s School in Dublin, Ireland. The film will explode many people’s preconceptions regarding children with disabilities and reveal what is truly possible for them when they are given proper support and education.
- A vibrant MULTI-LAYERED WEBSITE / ONLINE COMMUNITY that engages audiences with USER GENERATED CONTENT created for and by individuals with disabilities, siblings, families, educators, and advocates. By providing visitors the opportunity to share their own stories while also hearing from others, THE MAGIC CHAIR functions as a multifaceted portal into the complex world of disability. It will help visitors expand their understanding of what it means to live the life of “other” and learn about the long-standing inequities that exist in education, employment, and personal well-being for individuals with disabilities.
- “NOW I UNDERSTAND” GAMES AND APPS: Innovative and imaginative web experiences and apps/games designed to promote understanding of the challenges experienced by individuals living with disabilities.
VIDEO LINKS: You can view a 1-minute teaser for the project at http://vimeo.com/62398036
To hear directly from students whose lives were transformed by St. Declan’s School: https://vimeo.com/48277267