The new full-length documentary “SPELLERS,” the crew of which included alumni of The Master’s University and a TMU faculty member, took home the 2023 Best Documentary award at the Phoenix Film Festival. The film was also selected for the Donor’s Choice Award – Competition Feature Film. Evan Rogers (’19) served as editor, Emma Beck Rogers (’19) served as assistant editor, and communications professor Jefferson Henson is credited as a cinematographer.
The project was born from the impactful book “Underestimated: An Autism Miracle,” by J.B. Handley. Handley’s son Jamison was born with apraxia, a condition that left him unable to communicate verbally into his teens. When Handley eventually discovered a relatively unknown therapy called S2C (Spell to Communicate), Jamison’s life was transformed.
Director Pat Notaro, who has close ties with several families in the autism community, was amazed by the story. Henson quotes Notaro as saying, “This needs to become a movie. People really need to know about it.”
Notaro wanted a small crew to connect with the real-life individuals they would be filming, and brought on Henson and Dathan Graham, who had previously worked together to produce a year-long project focusing on quadriplegics and paraplegics.
Together, the three filmed families in states and cities from Portland to San Diego over the course of 18 months. Evan Rogers, who was a mentee of Henson’s in his senior year at TMU, was a key part of post-production.
The team hoped to put the spotlight on a therapy that could help many children with autism, limited ability to speak, or unreliable speech, to finally be heard.
Describing the individuals behind the film, Henson said, “A lot of these kids were somewhat prisoners in their minds. They were very much captive, not because of their inability to have coherent thoughts, but their body’s inability to communicate those thoughts.”
Henson understood that filming these real stories would require “a gentle and finessed touch” but found the whole experience “a massive blessing.” “Being part of this,” he said, “I had a front row seat into seeing some of these kids be able to communicate for the first time.”
He continues, “Every person is made in God’s image, and that means they are of immeasurable worth, and immeasurable value. I saw this therapy reflecting that in a very beautiful way. These kids with autism are beautiful. Instead of shoving them to the side, with this award that the documentary has gotten, it elevates them. I think that’s absolutely amazing.”
“SPELLERS” is in the process of distribution to the public. Private screenings were held all over California in April.
Josephine Lee is a junior double-majoring in communication and interdisciplinary studies.
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