Documentary explores annual musical by performers with disabilities
Into The Spotlight, a moving, inspirational new documentary, explores an annual musical produced by Dallas individuals with disabilities.
The film, directed by Jesuit and SMU alum and Emmy- and Peabody-Award winner Thaddeus Matula, premiered at the Dallas International Film Festival this spring, encored in mid-June at Violet Crown Cinema, before heading to the Ignite Film Festival in Marlborough, England.
“The Belong Spotlight theater program has grown tremendously over the last few years,” said Michelle Cox, executive director of generosity and impact ministries at Highland Park United Methodist Church.
“It really elevates individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities and shows an amazing story of how they create, write, and produce a musical every year,” she said.
Rehearsals for the show start every August, with the ensuing performance in February.
“They knew they had a good story here, and I was just validating what they were saying,” Matula said, describing the initial meeting as a “transformational moment.”
After initial concern over funding and possible loss of creative control, he recalled, “You guys said, ‘What if we pay for it?’ Then we became partners. It was one of the most beautiful acts of people living their faith that I had come across in a long time.”
“We just knew the boundaries when we got to them,” Cox said. “It was all about protecting the dignity of the participants.”
Matula reflected on watching the participants.
“I feel like I’m not watching people with disabilities in this,” he said. “I feel like I’m just watching people.”
He said of the nine central people prominently profiled in the film, “It just became imperative to us that we have to keep all these people.”
“We had over 400 hours of footage,” Thaddeus said of the arduous editing. “It was like finding the right needles in a stack of needles.”
The project took over two years to complete, shooting from late spring of 2020 to April 2021, with pickup shots months later.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the best thing I’ve ever done,” he said.
During the Dallas festival, it drew two sold-out screenings at the Texas Theater and Velvet Crown Theaters and a DIFF Best Texas Feature Award and Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.
“I’m thrilled,” the director said. “If we find the right partner, this is something that could catch fire, gain traction.”
Of the film’s subjects, he said, “We believe that their wisdom and their approach to life is going to change lives. And I don’t mean the lives of people with disabilities, but I mean change the way we, as the neurotypical, view these individuals.”
Cox knows others could benefit from similar programs.
“We’ve already been contacted by other churches and other programs throughout the world. So, it’s already working,” she said. “What I think Thaddeus and the team captured was the heart of these characters.
“The way Jacob ends it is so brilliant — ‘be a light always’ – and that’s what they are. That’s exactly why we did the film. They are a light.”