The meaning of normal: three lives
Residents of Ottawa’s La Source star in award-winning short doc film
Para Normal isn’t a film about the supernatural, it’s about the super natural — the extraordinary everyday moments of three Ottawans living with disabilities.
Created by Ottawa filmmaker Rostyslav Makushak, Para Normal recently won TVO’s 2015 Short Doc Contest. It shines a spotlight on the residents of La Source, a west-end group home for people living with developmental disabilities.
“I wanted to show these people as normal — that they live normal lives and do normal things like yoga, using a computer, making friends and gardening,” Makushak says. “For them it just takes more effort to learn these simple things — skills that we take for granted.”
But we could all learn from the joy his subjects take in learning — in the simple victories and small moments of life, the 38-yearold says. For example, one of La Source’s residents has a passion for what most people would deem a chore: cutting the grass. “He starts talking about it in the winter,” the director explains. “It’s his favourite thing to do.”
Makushak captured his footage as a hobby project. His main subjects — Heather McLellan, Pierre Butler, Harry Larocque — were already a big part of his life. After all, he works as a supervisor at La Source, which is part of the L’Arche Ottawa network. But when he learned about TVO’s annual contest, and its 2015 theme of Never Stop Learning, he knew his residents had a special story to tell. Four weeks of editing turned into Para Normal.
The filmmaker intentionally doesn’t have his subjects reveal their disabilities — Heather has Asperger’s, Pierre has Down syndrome and Harry has developmental issues — until the final moments of his short doc. “The way I edited the film, I didn’t want to even mention they had a disability. I just wanted to show them as normal human beings doing normal things,” he explains. “I wanted people to perceive them like anyone else.”
Makushak’s goal was to normalize those with learning disabilities. It’s a purpose near and dear to his heart.
He moved to Canada in 2007 but Makushak’s connection with the learning-disabled was forged in Ukraine as part of his post-secondary curriculum. That experience taught him how to connect with the disabled and the importance of integrating them into society. It also created a natural career path to La Source — a place where residents live alongside assistants: “It’s not just caregiving, it’s about building relationships.”
Given the TVO contest is voted on by the Ontario public, Makushak believes the support of the L’Arche Ottawa community — including neighbourhood flyers — helped make his film a winner. His victory earned him an industry pass to Hot Docs 2015 and two days of upcoming mentoring with TVO’s featured filmmakers, John and Jamie Kastner — a process he hopes will help him “grow” as a filmmaker. But he’s already found his muse. Makushak plans to continue giving the developmentally disabled a voice and to help clear up public misconceptions about them. He will use his burgeoning filmmaking skills to tell more stories of the “para normal.”
“They like to be useful, they like to be helpful,” he says of things he’s learned about his friends and subjects. “They enjoy simple things in life more than average people.”
Another good news story emerged as the doc was being completed. Harry and Pierre were two of the 50 developmentally disabled workers who lost and temporarily regained their jobs at a federal paper-shredding facility — with the promise that new positions would be found for them. An Ottawa Citizen story sparked a public outcry and led to their job extension.
Makushak’s subjects may take more joy in small moments, but they also recognize big moments when they see them.
“When I told them part of the prize is that it will air on TV, they couldn’t contain their excitement.”
Para Normal can be found online at tvo.org/shortdoc and will debut on TVO in prime time on Wednesday, May 27, at 7:51 p.m.
They live normal lives and do normal things like yoga, using a computer, making friends and gardening. FILMMAKER ROSTYSLAV MAKUSHAK