Local teen featured infilm
21st Century Media News
Ten years ago, Sean Hanlon joined the cast of an annual school play called “On the Other Side of the Fence.” At the time, the Plymouth Township youth was new to Philadelphia’s HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy and equally new to theater. Not anymore. At 16, Hanlon is an “On the Other Side of The Fence” regular. He’s also one of the youths featured in a recently released documentary about the musical collaboration between students at HMS and Germantown Friends School and its underlying message of acceptance.
As Sean’s mom, Kerri, puts it, “To be accepted for who we are, just as we are. To be seen, not for what our limitations or disabilities are, but for what we have to offer this world.”
The film is scheduled to air on public television’s MiND-TV on Sept. 3, Sept. 8, Oct. 23 and Jan. 6 at 8 p.m. (channel 35 on Comcast, Verizon FIOS, DirecTV and Dish television). The broadcasts follow its July premiere at Center City’s Roxy Theater (as part of Philadelphia Film Society’s Filmadelphia series) and Aug. 7 screening at Yoga Home, a Conshohocken yoga studio co-founded by Kerri Hanlon. In addition, WHYY radio’s Voices in the Family highlighted the GFS-HMS story in a program about using the arts to encourage empathy in children.
The documentary debuted internationally this month when filmmaker Henry Nevison and “On the Other Side of the Fence” playwright and composer Andrea Green traveled to Estonia to participate in the Estonian Chamber of Disabled People’s “Tolerance Through Theater” conference in Tallinn.
Green, also a music therapist, created “On the Other Side of the Fence” some 30 years ago. She was inspired by fellow teacher and project partner Teresa Maebori’s desire to promote understanding between the able-bodied and physically challenged students at GFS and HMS and driven by her own de-
sire to teach participants about issues like intolerance, prejudice, bullying and other behaviors rooted in negative and unfounded biases.
In the end, Green crafted a tale set on a pair of neighboring farms. The feuding owners have separated their properties with a fence. But — against all odds — the critters on each spread begin to get to know one another and gradually break down the artificial boundaries that divide them.
Along the way, Green met documentary filmmaker Henry Nevison and suggested he make a movie about the GFS-HMS project. Nevison’s film — focused on preparation for the production’s 30th anniversary show in 2012— was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign that raised some $87,000 as well as a variety of benefits by local businesses and organizations.
According to Kerri Hanlon, one of the documentary’s executive producers, the film has only broadened her perspective on the power of the GFS-HMS partnership.
“For the first time, I’m seeing behind the scenes at their rehearsals, watching the relationship between Sean and his partner, Ezra [from GFS], unfold,” she says. “We were fortunate to have many family members and friends join us for the screenings at the Roxy and Yoga Home. The thing that strikes me most is that even for people who are so close to us and love Sean so much, it was illuminating for them to see Sean and his classmates in this way.
“I think Sean is tremendously proud to show everyone this film and allow more people a glimpse into his world. We have an article about the film hanging at Yoga Home, and he gets a huge grin every time someone greets him with, ‘It’s the movie star.’
“There’s no delicate way to put this … it can be challenging for people to see Sean and look past the wheelchair, feeding tube and other medical devices and realize that Sean is just Sean — a great kid with an outgoing personality, a great sense of humor and an abundance of joy.
“One of my favorite moments was at the premiere when two of my dearest friends arrived, and Sean just lit up as they asked him if he was excited for them to see the movie. In that moment, Sean knew he had something special to share and was bursting with pride to show my friends … these friends who have been there to drive us to CHOP [Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia], sit with Sean when he was recovering from surgery or illnesses and do so much to support me. To sit with them and watch this film was a moment I’ll never forget.”
She gets no argument from her son, who uses preprogrammed assistive technology to communicate and conveys “yes” with a direct smile, “no” with a sidewaysturned straight face.
Asked a series of questions about the new documentary, Sean notes he’s “proud of the movie and so happy to share it with his family and friends.” He’s also “excited to see himself and his friends on the big screen” and is es- pecially happy for everyone to see why he thinks performing partner Ezra is “so cool.”
More information is available at www.mindtv. org/fence or via email at email@example.com.
McHugh and Company provide music, while community members join in a Ceili-style dance, during the second day of the St. Patrick Church Irish Festival celebrating the Feast of Our Lady of Knock.
Sean and Kerri Hanlon attend the Philadelphia Film Society premiere of “On the Other Side of the Fence” at the Roxy.