Praying with Lior

I’ve heard good things about a new documentary film, Praying with Lior, only opening now in a few cities and playing primarily at Jewish film festivals. From the film’s website:

An engrossing, wrenching and tender documentary film, Praying with Lior introduces Lior Liebling, also called “the little rebbe.” Lior has Down syndrome, and has spent his entire life praying with utter abandon. Is he a “spiritual genius” as many around him say? Or simply the vessel that contains everyone’s unfulfilled wishes and expectations? Lior – whose name means “my light” — lost his mother at age six, and her words and spirit hover over the film. While everyone agrees Lior is closer to God, he’s also a burden, a best friend, an inspiration, and an embarrassment, depending on which family member is speaking. As Lior approaches Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony different characters provides a window into life spent “praying with Lior.” The movie poses difficult questions such as what is “disability” and who really talks to God? Told with intimacy and humor, Praying with Lior is a family story, a triumph story, a grief story, a divinely-inspired story.

It sounds like this could go either way, right? The stereotyping of a child with Down syndrome as closer to God than the rest of us, an inspiration or a burden are themes on developmental disability we’ve heard many times before.

But filmmaker Ilana Trachtman’s motivations as reported by Devorah Shubowitz at Media Rights reveal complexities behind the intent of the documentary:

As Trachtman struggled to focus during a Rosh Hashanah service at Elat Chayyim, a multi-denominational Jewish retreat center in the Catskills, she was mesmerized by the soulfully attentive off-key voice that came from behind her. When she saw the source, a boy with Down syndrome, she was shocked. Lior’s praying shattered her expectations of what people with disabilities can do. “He amazed me. He could do something that I can’t do — pray with real concentration in Hebrew and in English. So I stalked him because of my own spiritual curiosity.” When Trachtman heard Lior was going to have a Bar Mitzvah, she thought somebody should tell his story on film and shortly after, she decided to be that person….

Audiences may debate whether this photogenic young person’s “star quality” sets him apart from other people with disabilities. Some may argue that Lior’s integration is dependent upon his recognition by and attractiveness to non-disabled society. Others may think his charisma is connected to his disability. The film certainly brings to the foreground issues of the aesthetics of disability, and non-disability, in film.

Another review at Cinematical also suggests that disability is just one (important) facet of this complex family story about love and religious faith.

Cross-posted at The Gimp Parade

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