Jason DaSilva was enjoying a Caribbean vacation with his family, watching the planes fly over Maho Beach in St. Maarten, when he fell down and couldn't get up. DaSilva, a filmmaker who at the time was in his mid-20s and doing his master's degree in applied media arts at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, happened to have his camera rolling on that beach. And so he captured this pivotal moment in his life: When, a year after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, he began to understand that a physical decline was inevitable, and imminent.
Shortly after that, he made the decision to keep his Sony HD camera rolling, and document his physical journey. Some seven years – and 3,600 hours of footage – later, DaSilva is premiering his feature documentary When I Walk at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.
"I think having the camera always by me and just knowing that I was doing a large project was like having a little bit of self-therapy," said DaSilva, now 34, from Sundance on Thursday. "And I think that that's one thing that this film is going to have the power that not a lot of films from what I've seen do; is that it's showing the experience of somebody moving from able-bodied to disabled, which is something that rarely gets caught on camera. You mostly hear about people's disability stories or stories about them losing the ability to, like, walk or whatever it is, after the fact. And then they talk about it in the past. But what I did – and maybe it comes from my Emily Carr background – is a little bit of a performance art piece. You actually see it unfold as you're watching it."
Some 30 people operated his user-friendly camera for this documentary, including his mother, brother and filmmaker friends. He began editing the film in 2009, but kept shooting until just about a couple of months ago.
DaSilva was born in Dayton, Ohio, but moved to Vancouver when he was 14. He did both his undergrad and master's at Emily Carr, and lived briefly in Toronto and New York between the two degrees. These days, he's back in New York, living in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Williamsburg. This isn't his first shot at Sundance. At the festival in 2003, he screened his short film Olivia's Puzzle, which also qualified for an Academy Award.
With his diagnosis of primary progressive MS, his life has changed drastically, but it has not stopped him from pursuing his film projects.
Among the many people who helped get When I Walk made was Vancouver-based producer Cari Green, whose past projects include The Corporation and Scared Sacred. Now doing her MFA at UBC's Film Production program, Green helped raise money in Canada for DaSilva's documentary, which is a U.S./Canada co-production. (She's credited as associate producer, but in fact served as co-executive producer, she says.) Green travels to Sundance this weekend, to help secure a distribution deal.
"For me, the film, when he approached me, it really resonated," says Green, whose brother contracted polio when he was 10 months old.
"I certainly grew up in a household where my parents decided that disability of any kind was not going to stand in the way of pursuing our dreams. So that was the philosophy I grew up with. And Jason's got that in spades," she says. "He inspires me. When you think about all the things, small things, that [a physical disability] can prevent you from doing – and here he is being able to accomplish not only completing the film, but getting it into Sundance. I'm in awe."
OTHER CANADIAN CONTENT AT SUNDANCE
Director: François Delisle
In this fiction feature, Pierre, a man in his 40s, is serving a 14-year prison sentence, while his wife and mother adjust to their new lives.
Multiple directors, including Jason Eisener
This U.S.-Canada co-production is the sequel to horror compilation V/H/S/, which screened at Sundance last year.
Le futur proche (The Near Future)
Director: Sophie Goyette
This 18-minute short, which screens in competition, hangs on a life-changing phone call that a French immigrant pilot receives at work.
Spit Gold Under an Empire
Director: Emily Kai Bock
The much buzzed-about director (she directed the video for Grimes's Oblivion) is at Sundance with her New York rap documentary, part of Sundance Channel's New American Noise series.
Stories We Tell
Director: Sarah Polley
In this personal documentary, the Canadian filmmaking darling peels back the layers of a family mystery.