I have always been drawn to documentary film. There is something about the narrative being raw and real that sets it apart from other movie genres. When I graduated from college with a degree in film, I was hungry to find a project for my first documentary.
My good friend, Maria, invited me to join her as a volunteer at Camp Tatiyee in Arizona’s stunning White Mountains. I was vaguely familiar with Camp Tatiyee, a camp for those with special needs, mostly because many of my close friends spent summers working there. I also knew the family that ran the camp. Jake, who studied acting with me for a time, and his mom, Pam, the Camp Director.
I decided to take Maria up on her offer. I figured it was only a day and it would probably be a rewarding experience. My job: I would be one of several actors portraying different individuals with specific needs (based on real campers) so that the camp staff could practice fire drills and safety protocols.
It was incredible.
I had never experienced such passionate counselors and staff. Even though we were merely acting (and probably not all that accurately) the staff treated these drills with intense seriousness. But what challenged me was the opportunity to step into the shoes of a special needs person. At one point, I was to act as a “total care” camper. That meant my body was paralyzed, although my mind was 100% engaged. I lay helpless against an imaginary blazing fire that was creeping through the cabin. I couldn’t even speak. All I was allowed to do was scream for help in my mind. It soon dawned on me as to why the counselors treated this exercise with such sincerity. It was my first realization that these campers are Just Like Us, and I hadn’t even met them yet.
Later in the day, as we were preparing to leave, I was speaking with Pam, Tatiyee’s Director. She was asking me about my plans now that I was out of school. I informed her that I was freelancing. I had a few video gigs. I went on to tell her about my drive for creating documentaries.
“That sounds great. Maybe you can make your first one here,” Pam responded with a smile and a wink. And that was it. That was the birth of Just Like Us.
Shortly after that, Jim Manley hired me to work for him at Manley Films & Media. One day, we chatted about the idea and he agreed to support my efforts. Jim has many years of experience with documentary film-making. He’s extremely passionate about storytelling. To him, it was an easy decision. Just Like Us was going to happen.
I will never forget that summer. We went up to camp over 20 times, filmed over 2 terabytes of footage, conducted 22 interviews, and partied like rock stars with the campers. The staff was like family and we were able to capture it all on film. But what was even more amazing was witnessing how camp impacts the campers, an experience the film will illuminate for the magic it is.
The final edit is almost finished. Looking back, I’ve realized a few things. I am definitely not qualified to direct a film about the special needs community. I started out this project knowing nothing about autism, cerebral palsy, cognitive delays, the deaf or blind. I never knew about their struggles, talents, personalities, ambitions and extraordinary abilities. But that may be exactly why I had to make my first documentary Just Like Us. As a guy who is a fervent activist for social justice, I want to help educate others who might be just as ignorant, or even dismissive, of people with special needs.
It is a privilege to call Just Like Us my first documentary short. It’s message may be simple but it is critical and I cannot wait to share it with you all.
WATCH THE TRAILER
Just Like Us, a Manley Films & Media Production, directed by Adam Benavides, is a documentary short about the Arizona Lions Club Camp Tatiyee in Lakeside and the importance of empowering those with special needs. Here’s how to learn more:
- Visit the Just Like Us Facebook page to watch the trailer and show your support for this incredible community of individuals.
- Subscribe to Manley Manuals to be among the first invited to the screening (date TBA) of Just Like Us.
Do you have a documentary idea? We can help. Visit our video gallery to see some of Manley Films documentary projects.