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My Hero Brother

Director Yonatan Nir

<em>My Hero Brother</em>

Down syndrome doesn’t just affect those who have the condition — their families’ lives are also changed forever, especially siblings, who grow up both supportive and in the shadows. This emotional and inspiring doc follows a group of Israelis who take their Down syndrome siblings on a trek into the Himalayas. See myherobrother.org.

When did you realize that this should be a film?

I met the group about two months before we went to India to check if the story was worth a film and I fell in love pretty much immediately with the protagonists. I felt that there is an untouched conflict, full of pain and beauty under the surface, but at that stage I couldn’t tell exactly what it is. Before I became a filmmaker, I was a photojournalist and I travelled the world quite a lot. I knew that travelling tends to bring untouched personal issues to the surface, so I thought there was a very good chance for a good film here and decided to join the group on their journey to India.

While many people wonder how parents deal with children who have Down Syndrome, I don’t think so many pay attention to how siblings handle the situation. Was telling that side of the story a large motivation for this film?

Absolutely! The longest relationship in nature is between siblings, not between parents and children. And in the case of siblings in families with a child with special needs, I thought it was interesting to focus on those who grew up into a given situation that affects their lives tremendously and, unlike their parents, they had choice but to accept it. I was surprised to find out that this issue is almost untouched in the world of documentary filmmaking so I thought it was a great opportunity to dive into it and share it with others.

Was everyone okay with having such emotional stories shown on camera? Did you have to turn off the camera from time to time?

Like in almost every film, I do have moments where I decide not to shoot either because I am asked not to or because I feel it is not the right thing to do. I also make similar decisions in the editing room, of course: what footage to share with the audience and what to keep to myself. 
When I work with protagonists who are people with special needs, I need to be extra careful. I respect them and I remember that they will have to live with the consequences of the exposure long after the journey is over. In my career I found out that if you do it in the right way, a film can actually be therapeutic and have positive impact on the protagonist’s life. In a way you help them recreate their own narrative.

What special challenges did you face in producing the film?

I love shooting in remote places and have been doing it for many years. Unpredictability for me is the magic of documentary filmmaking and I enjoy the challenges that come with it. In this kind of documentary, you have to stick to the story, to be determined and persistent sometimes in difficult and harsh conditions. But at the same time you have to be totally flexible and open to what nature and human nature will bring to you. In this sense, at least for me, documentary filmmaking is pretty similar to life itself.

What has happened with this group of people since the film was completed?

The group continues to meet regularly even three years after we returned from India. They became a real family and it is amazing to see it. Those people had an untold story that they kept for themselves for years and finally they can share it and be proud of it. It a huge privilege to be a part of this process.

What do you hope happens with the film?

My Hero Brother became a real hit in Israel and it is one of the most viewed docs in the past few months. It is screened all over the country almost daily in cinemas, schools, conventions, and private screenings. We even did a special screening at the prime minister’s office, and we did all that with no PR and without a distributor, only based on our very active fans on social networks and on word-of-mouth.

In Israel, we have 4,000 people with Down syndrome and in the U.S. there are 400,000, so the potential to touch many hearts here is great and this is what we hope for. We are also in the process of creating a web-sharing platform which will allow people with disabilities and their siblings to get connected with one another, share their stories, and become a part of a global community. We hope the film will inspire people from all over the world to go through life-changing experiences with their special needs siblings.

What is your next project?

In February I am releasing, “The Essential Link: The Story of Wilfrid Israel” in a few film festivals in the U.S. It is a documentary about Wilfrid Israel, one of the great saviors of the holocaust period and about the reasons for his disappearance from history.

I also work with Dani Menkin (my partner at Hey Jude Productions with whom I’ve made “Dolphin Boy”) on a documentary about the life and work of legendary wildlife photographer Amos Nachoum and about his journey to the Arctic to swim with a polar bear and photograph it from an arm-length distance. We shot it last year and now in post production.

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