In this article, I examine the messages in the documentary, Praying With Lior (Trachtman, 2007), which was recently released in DVD format and is available through online rental. As the sibling of a 53-year-old sister with Down syndrome and a teacher educator in the field of special education and disability studies, I am very interested in the representation of individuals with intellectual disabilities in the media. Is the portrayal too saccharine? Is the portrayal realistic? Could the portrayal be true for others with intellectual disabilities or only the individual in the film? Are negatives glossed over or shown too clearly in the film (Black & Pretes, 2007)? Does the film present disability as social stigma? These and many other questions I reflected on after two viewings of the film, Praying With Lior, as well as hearing a lecture by the producer, and interviewing Lior's brother, Yoni. The documentary highlights the many strengths of Lior, but it also presents some of the reality of intellectual disability. Is the film balanced in its representation of intellectual disability? These are the questions I explore here.
“Shot over a three year period in a close-knit Jewish Reconstructionist community in Philadelphia, Praying with Lior documents the life of Lior Liebling, a rabbi's son with Down syndrome” (Catsoulis, 2008). Lior has an enormous eagerness for his bar mitzvah. As the Lieblings (stepmother, father, two sisters, and brother Yoni) engage in exhaustive preparations for Lior's bar mitzvah, the viewer sees Lior continue to daven (pray) in his tree house, on a backyard trampoline, in the synagogue, and in his Hebrew class (Collins, Epstein, Reiss, Lowe, 2001). Lior received attention and experienced assimilation from his immediate family and his spiritual family (Vogel & Reiter, 2004). A near-celebrity within his neighborhood, Lior seems unaware of his real-world limitations, a fact that worries his stepmother, Lynne Iser but not his father, Mordechai.
Patiently, Ms. Trachtman teases out the tricky dynamics of family life with all its sibling rivalry and love. Lior's older sister, Reena, recalls becoming a surrogate mother after the death of their mother in 1997, and Lior's feelings of loss of his mother, Deborah, are a secondary theme of the film. Anna, the youngest in the family, laments her displacement as the center of attention throughout the film, and says, “It's kind of annoying”, with candor. Yoni, the older brother, is closest to Lior, and guides him through many of the mysteries of life for all adolescents—girls, beer, how to wear a suit, and shave “like a man.” It is impossible not to smile several times during this film, as the viewer witnesses a well-functioning family, which includes a stepmother and a 13-year-old boy with an intellectual disability.
Praying With Lior (2007) has won numerous awards, including the Audience Award, Best Documentary, 2007, at the Jewish Film Festival, in Boston, San Diego, and Seattle; Media Award, 2007, American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities; and Media Award, 2008, National Down Syndrome Congress. Many people around the country have seen the film, which has played at over 10 regional Jewish film festivals as well as temple and church screenings around America (http://www.prayingwithLior.com). However, the question remains, with all the fan fare, does the producer give us a balanced perspective on intellectual disabilities?
My Perspective on
Praying With Lior
Praying With Lior is the well-acclaimed disability documentary that is currently being shown in college classrooms, temples, mosques, and churches to demonstrate the importance of a welcoming spiritual home for children with developmental disabilities. It preaches the values of inclusion and acceptance. Yet, we see Lior attending a public charter high school in Philadelphia and being educated in a segregated “mainstream” classroom with several other children with disabilities, including many with Down syndrome.
We see Lior alive with humor and kindness toward his family, but never do we see him interact with a peer from school, until we view the bar mitzvah party. We see what Lior says by subtitles (his voice is the only voice with subtitles in the movie) because often his speech is inarticulate. We see him practicing for his bar mitzvah speech, we see him lounging around at home, we see him watching football with his dad and his dad's friend, but we do not see Lior do chores—no table setting, dishes, bed making, and so forth. We see him interviewed about his faith but not his work options after high school. We see him laughing with his family, but what does Lior contribute to family life? Is his contribution the joy Lior gives to others? Is that enough for a disability documentary that many will see?
It appears that everyone is in love with Lior, everyone will help him prepare for his bar mitzvah, and everyone wants to celebrate with him. Lior states more than once that having a bar mitzvah means he is an adult, and being an adult means you can drink beer. This did not seem very funny to me. Does Trachtman want the audience to fall in love with Lior because he has a disability, or does she want us to fall in love with his accepting community? Sometimes, I felt the movie needed to show more of his everyday life: How does he get to school, does he belong to any extracurricular school activities, does he belong to a temple youth group, does he know how to use public transportation, does he know how to use a computer, is he successful at food shopping? Lior tells the producer during one of their conversations that he does not have “Down” syndrome, he has “Up” syndrome, and this is very cute! In several cases, when Lior gave an incorrect response to a factual question, he says, “I knew that, but April Fools to you, every day is April Fools.” This response is also very cute and “heartwarming,” but do we want just heartwarming?
I wanted the audience to see more than just davening by Lior. I do not doubt his deep spirituality, but I wanted the producer to show us more of his everyday challenges and strengths. Maybe I am too concerned about functionality, but I needed to see more of it than Trachtman showed us.
Yoni's Perspective on
Praying With Lior
In an hour-long taped interview with Lior's older brother, Yoni Liebling, I came to better understand the ups and down of life with Lior. Currently a 3rd-year undergraduate in film studies and a member of a national fraternity, he wonders how much of his current life he can share with Lior. When discussing opportunities for Lior to visit him at college, Yoni said,
Yes, my family came up for visiting day when I was a freshman and that was the last time, it was slightly disastrous! I would love for Lior to come up and visit me, but he can't deal with the social scene I am part of right now. I really don't want him to think that drinking beer is okay or a really cool thing to do. I tell him all the time that drinking too much beer is not good. It can make you sad, it is not healthy, and it is not good. It has been difficult because I can't share this life with him because he can't—it is too much, too fast, too many things he can't handle.
Yoni expresses concern about the future for individuals with Down syndrome, and he mentions the concerns that someday “there may be no Liors.” His father is involved with working with Congress to see if a bill can be passed that would guarantee that doctors provide a more balanced informational approach for parents who are told that their prenatal test results indicate Down syndrome. Yoni believes that these parents should be encouraged to meet not just with a genetic counselor but with a family who has a child with Down syndrome. Yoni is concerned about the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (2007) report that recommends that all pregnant women, regardless of age, should be offered prenatal screening for Down syndrome.
Yoni worries that people do not value the life of his brother Lior and do not believe they can make a contribution to family life or community life (Zuckoff, 2003). He says the current abortion rate for fetuses with Down syndrome is close to 90%. Bauer (2008) also discussed this report and the statistics in her powerful article, “Tell Them It's Not so Bad.” Yoni shares that most of Lior's friends have disabilities and that Lior went to the prom with a girl with Down syndrome. Sometimes he thinks this is good for Lior, because he is protected from society when he is with others with disabilities in a secure, nurturing way. Other times he believes Lior needs to get out more with peers without disabilities.
After talking with Yoni, I realized the entire documentary failed to show the concerns about medical ethics and disability, true peer acceptance, and a brother's protection dilemmas (Farnall & Smith, 1999). Yoni thinks the best job after high school for Lior would be to do some work at the synagogue, maybe in child care, or perhaps as a janitor. We do not see in the film a conversation about the potential world of Lior as an adult.
Praying With Lior (Trachtman, 2007) is a tremendously wonderful film that makes us laugh and cry as we journey with Lior and his family on the road to a successful, moving bar mitzvah. Audiences love Lior's humor (“UP Syndrome!”; “Happy April Fool's!”), his prayfulness, and his ability to bring the Jewish community together. The family tale of losing a mother when Lior is 6 years old to breast cancer and trying to adapt to a new stepmother is a powerfully moving story. Lior's acceptance and celebration by his family and his spiritual community are beautifully shared throughout the film. So, why does this film make me nervous? I think the producer made a powerful film, an important film to help us understand disability, but I think Trachtman could have added a little more realism to help audiences get the “big picture” (Safran, 1988). Maybe I wanted more of a political film, maybe I wanted inclusion, and maybe I just wanted too much.
I am grateful for the contribution and insights of Yoni Liebling, who freely agreed to be interviewed about his brother Lior.
Deborah Peters Goessling, EdD (firstname.lastname@example.org), Associate Professor, Providence College, Department of Elementary/Special Education, Providence, RI 02918-0001.