SAN SEBASTIAN — Over the course of a burgeoning career as a documentary director, and while not producing movies such as Cannes Festival opener “Everybody Knows,” Morena Films producer-partner Alvaro Longoria has addressed lamentably little-known subjects of large resonance with good-humor, clarity, candor and a healthy dose of all-round prejudice-bashing. “Ni distintos ni diferentes: Campeones” marks his third doc feature after Spanish Academy Goya winner “Sons of the Clouds” (2013) an analytical lament for the fate of the Sahara people made with Javier Bardem, and “The Propaganda Game” (2017), a study of geo-political prejudice about North Korea, in and outside the country. In it, these qualities are shared by his extraordinary subjects. These take in both the mentally uncoordinated star actors of Spanish fiction comedy blockbuster “Campeones” (Champions) where they play members of a basketball team, and, as important, their equally remarkable parents.
Mixing interview and observation, as the actors go about their daily life, showing the camera their home, caught at their workplace, walking in the countryside with their partner, the result is a guide book to people with special needs, drilling down on various forms of mental disability, the crucial importance of family support, education, work, love and sex, their having families of their own. Variety chatted to Longoria as he prepared to present “Ni Distintos” on San Sebastian’s big-screen Velodrome, before it is released in Spanish theaters by NBC Universal Pictures Intl. Spain.
What impact do you think a film like this can have on the viewing public?
It can change the way people see the disabled. “Champions” has done that. That is, people in Spain have adapted. There is no longer this hidden and forgotten collective which it has been until now, and which nobody wanted to look at. This film has changed the way these people see themselves. I hear it all the time. Also, in the past people would see someone with disabilities and look the other way. Now it is different, the other day, I was taking photos with the guys for the documentary and the whole time people came up asking for selfies and speaking with them affectionately.
You decided to make this film while you were and are busy with your work as a producer and on another documentary. How did that come about?
“Champions” director Javier Fesser, while we were casting Champions, told me “These kids have an incredible story to tell. You have to make a documentary.” In some ways, he was the major inspiration for this project. “Champions” has a bit of a fantasy tone. What Javier wanted was for me to tell their true real-life stories. The more I got to know these guys, the more I realized that they were fascinating. I also have a family member with a disability, and I realized that making the documentary had a personal side to it as well.
It’s a singular film. I don’t remember another film in the history of the cinema where the title of the film is discussed by the people in it before the title credits role. Why that decision?
Nomenclature is a very sensitive issue. In America now they use the term mental disability. Saying “mentally handicapped” is archaic and politically incorrect. In Spain we tend to talk ever more about people with special abilities. We don’t refer to them as disabled, because many of these people have problems in one area but are brilliant in others, often superior to what we would once have called “normal people.”
Another crucial aspect is that in the credits you list what each person’s disability is. I think here again you are helping the audience with vocabulary to be able to discuss these issues and not be frightened into silence.
What I tried to do was find answers to the questions I had all my life about my aunt who has a mental disability. What is it like to live with a disability? I try to tell their story from their point of view. I think it’s crucial to understand what they are dealing with. Sometimes people try to put all disabilities in one package, but they are all very different. Some have schizophrenia, some have Down syndrome, and there is a major difference there. Mental disability is such a broad term. I tried to investigate how the medical community treats them, what kinds of medicine they are taking. It’s shocking how many medications they take each day. And often their doctors still don’t know how to treat, or what causes the disability. A lot of it is still trial and error and seems very primitive when looked at more closely.
I think your character’s family environment is crucial as well. Some of the people in your film have a more stable family balance than many people who aren’t dealing with disabilities.
My grandfather had a daughter who had a disability, and he dedicated a lot of his money and efforts to start a school for people with disabilities. In Spain there was practically nothing at the time. In this film you can see the importance that families had and still have. These guys are all people with important problems, but are surrounded by their families without whom they wouldn’t fare so well.
It was wonderful when you interviewed the parents You ask about their reactions on learning their baby had a mental disability. They were very candid. But they all said that they loved their child immediately and that feeling grew even stronger.
It’s a drama to find out about the mental disability of a baby and in the beginning, obviously, that impacted the parents a lot. Most of them didn’t know what to do, but got very involved. The fact they get so involved helps these kids grow so much more than if they didn’t have that support. At the end of the day all of them say they have been very happy, that it has made their lives fuller. This was quite a shock.