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Documenting coexistence in Israel
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Documenting coexistence in Israel

Livingston students with autism gain production, editing skills

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

In mid-March, Ethan Solender traveled to Israel as part of a team of four to film a documentary about a school that educates Arab and Jewish children together.   

Two weeks later, high school students Ryan, Charles, and Dylan (last names are withheld at the request of the school) spent their first-period class editing footage from that trip. 

What distinguishes this project from those of other aspiring Steven Spielbergs is that all the students involved in the film have autism. 

Solender, 20, of Livingston, currently enrolled in a vocational school in Union County, is a high school graduate and a student at FilmAcademy360, an after-hours weekend and summer program open to anyone with autism. Ryan, Charles, and Dylan are high school students at Academy360. Both schools fall under the auspices of Spectrum 360 in Livingston, formerly the Children’s Institute, which serves children across the autism spectrum. It began in 1883 as the Daughters of Israel Hebrew Orphanage Asylum in Newark.

The director of the film school, David DiIanni, sees a kinship between Spectrum 360 and the school in Israel. Located in Beersheva, The Hagar School, open since 2007, provides bilingual, multicultural education to 330 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.  

Despite serving very different communities, he believes Hagar and Spectrum 360 face the same challenge: getting people to see students as individuals first, and their labels (Muslim, Jew, autistic, etc.) second. 

“Their mission is to teach children — and the public through the children — to accept diversity, and that’s our mission as well,” he said.

He said he wants this documentary to generate public awareness and conversation about autism and described plans to submit the short film to a variety of film festivals. He’s already arranged speaking engagements at local synagogues. The first is on May 5 at Congregation Beth Hatikvah, a Reconstructionist congregation in Summit. 

“This project has opened a ton of doors,” said DiIanni. We have something to talk about that’s not what people expect to hear from an organization that serves people with autism. They are not expecting a short documentary about two kids from Israel.”

DiIanni spent decades in film production, in the United States and Italy, for advertising agencies and television, before getting involved in special education. He brings his expertise into the classroom and insists that students use the technology used in the field, whether it’s the film equipment (in Israel that included a boom mike, drone camera, digital single-lens reflex cameras with a robotic arm, 4G cameras, and LED lighting) or the computer software for post-production editing (a program called Adobe Premiere). 

“Doing a project like this is important for us because it’s an opportunity for our students to be engaged and involved in a high level in actual film production,” he said. And while he said Adobe Premiere can be difficult to learn, compared to say, iMovie, “Once they acquire the skills it’s more valuable than iMovie. Nobody uses iMovie professionally.”

The trip took eight months to plan. By the time Ethan, DiIanni, and Bilal Waters and Vincent Lissandrello, FilmAcademy 360 studio assistants who served as cameramen, left for Israel in early March, DiIanni had already determined just about every shot they would take over six days, mostly in Jerusalem and Beersheva — at the school, in two homes, and in-and-around the community. 

As production assistant, Ethan mostly listened to audio and carried equipment, but he was thrilled that he also had the opportunity to do some camera work and interview a “man on the street” in Jerusalem. (The film includes so called “man-on-the-street” interviews spliced into the narrative in which random citizens offer their thoughts on Arabs and Jews coexisting.)

“We interviewed this one guy,” said Ethan. “I actually asked him a question. I said, ‘Why do you think the Arabs and the Jews are still fighting today?’ You know he gave me a great answer,” though he couldn’t quite recall its content without the footage in front of him.  

The children in Beersheva were attracted to the drone camera. “When strangers come to school there is always great excitement,” said Karen Abu Adra, director of partnerships and development for the Hagar School. “But strangers with a drone? That drew all the kids to see what was going on.” And they weren’t only watching, she acknowledged. “I had to laugh to hear the other kids plotting, in Hebrew, how they were going to get the drone’s controller away from Bilal! They had quite a plan but luckily didn’t attempt to carry it off.”

The depth of the relationship between the families of the two main students in the film, Deema and Amir, — one Arab, one Jew — struck Abu Adra. “I know what happens in the school, and it is amazing,” she said. “But to see Deema and Amir’s families get together for a meal at Deema’s house, to see the genuine friendship between the families, and the mix of traditions and cultures through food, was beyond touching.

“It’s one thing to educate young children. They are malleable and by virtue of their being together in school all day, friendship will be made. It’s another thing for adults to become true friends.”

DiIanni said he expects to complete production in about four weeks. Toward that goal, Ryan, Charles, and Dylan edited video on three computers, with the assistance of Waters and Lissandrello. While Ryan worked on a scene involving Deema with her mom in their kitchen, Charles organized overhead images of the school, and Dylan fiddled with shots of the city. 

Because students at Spectrum 360 fall along the autism spectrum, DiIanni adjusts tasks to each student’s ability. Some do simple chores like loading and locking film clips. Others will get into editing that requires some decision-making skills.  

DiIanni acknowledges that students don’t have a lot of creative freedom in terms of vision, because like production jobs in the real world, the focus is on getting a specific task done. “But there are shots where they will have to use some judgment, like if they can hear our voices off camera, they know to edit those out.”

As the period ended and the three boys headed to their next class, Ethan reflected on his experience. “I thought it was pretty amazing,” he said. “Being with the film crew got me an opportunity to see another town in Israel” that he hadn’t visited on two previous trips to Israel, one with his family, the other with Birthright Israel. He pointed out that at The Hagar School, “It wasn’t just Jewish people, but Jewish [people] and Arabs coming together as one.”

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