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Couple talks about love and life experiences in festival documentary
San Diego Union-Tribune - 1/26/2019
Jan. 26--The media does not have a good reputation when it comes to the ways in which they portray disabled people, and that was a concern when filmmakers approached Joseph Stramondo and his wife, Leah Smith, about participating in their documentary.
The film, "Far From the Tree," is a documentary based on the best-selling book by Andrew Solomon, "Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity." The movie follows families navigating how to love each other through various differences that they may not have in common with each other.
"Leah and I both care quite a bit about the representation of disabled people in the media and are appropriately cautious when it comes to non-disabled people making media about our community," Stramondo says. "However, we knew the film was going to be made, with or without us, and that it was likely to get quite a bit of uptake because of the popularity of the book that was its source material. ... When we met the filmmakers and built a relationship with them, we realized that we would be in a position to have considerable influence over our own narrative, and that ... the film could be a way to signal boost some of the disability politics we both believe deserve more public attention."
The film is one of more than 30 being featured at this year's San Diego International Jewish Film Festival, which will be held from Feb. 7 to 17. The festival focuses on contemporary films featuring Jewish themes from all over the world.
Stramondo, 36, is an assistant professor of philosophy at San Diego State University, and his wife, Smith, previously served as director of public relations for Little People of America. They both have dwarfism, and they live in Mission Valley with their two children. He took some time to talk about their participation in the film and his work outside of it.
Q: Tell us about the film.
A: It's a complex film with lots of interwoven themes, but, at its core, "Far From the Tree" is about the almost indestructible capacity families have to love each member, even across huge chasms of lived experience. Parents and children always lead somewhat different lives, but this film explores how we can continue to love even when the lives we are talking about are profoundly different.
Q: And what is your story about, in the film?
A: It is about our experiences as two adults with dwarfism who were raised by average-height parents and then began exploring the possibility of starting a family of our own, which may or may not have included dwarf or average-height children.
Q: Did you have any concerns about participating in it?
A: We had some concerns about non-disabled filmmakers making a documentary about disabled people. ... This is an especially pressing concern given the cultural history of dwarfism, specifically, and how we are so often regarded as objects of public spectacle. I think even some of the recent reality TV series fail to truly humanize us and move past the days of the freak show. We didn't want to participate in a freak show that just changed locations from the circus tent to Netflix. We dealt with these concerns by speaking about them honestly and openly with the filmmakers, who were already thinking about them. They gave us their reassurances that they were aiming to make a documentary film that told the truth and not something sensational. We began to trust that this was the case more and more as we built a friendship with the director and producer, who are now almost a part of our family. While you don't see it in the film, they let us into their world as much as we let them into ours. This mutuality meant that we didn't feel like we were objects, but people.
What I love about Mission Valley ...
I've enjoyed living in Mission Valley because it is so central and has great trolley access.
Q: How do you feel about the way that the film turned out?
A: We love it. We aren't in a position to judge how well the other stories were told, but we were very pleased with how our narrative was honestly told and fit in thematically to the overall message.
Q: What do you hope people come away understanding from your story, specifically?
A: The simple idea that, at least many times, disability isn't a tragedy, but a difference. Someone can lead a life that is very different from yours without it being less than, and you shouldn't confuse these differences with suffering.
Q: I read an interview with you and your wife that says you're a longtime activist with various disability rights organizations? How did you get started in your activism work?
A: I started with an intellectual interest in the social and political character of disability that came from my coursework in college, but the reading I was doing was really just giving me the language to understand my own experience more than it was introducing me to any new ideas. I think at some point, every disabled person has to become an activist in order to survive. When you live in a world that literally isn't made for people like you, you almost have no choice but to join with others in your situation and fight to change that world to make it a bit easier to move through. I don't think this is only true for disability, by the way, but really anyone who has experienced some kind of marginalization in society.
Q: You're also a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University? What first sparked your interest in the subject?
A: I've always liked to read, write, and analyze arguments, but I didn't even know philosophy existed until I took a course on Plato and Aristotle as part of my European civilization minor in college. I fell in love with it for its own sake at first, because it was a lot of fun. Eventually, I came to realize that if you do philosophy right, you are engaging with problems that can have a very real impact on people's lives.
Q: And your work also focuses on systems of power and their influence on bioethics? What does this mean?
A: (Bioethics is) the process of thinking carefully and critically about the ethical problems that arise in the life sciences and medicine. ... There are reams written in bioethics about protecting patient autonomy, but almost all of it is about how we must keep doctors, family members, or the government from restricting that autonomy. However, people with less power in society know that in order to have autonomy, it's not enough to just ensure that no one is interfering with your choices, you need to have access to a decent set of choices in the first place, in order to have meaningful autonomy. We can make sophisticated arguments about why a woman should have a right to an abortion if the fetus has a disability, but we need to also think about what society needs to do in order to ensure that a woman has the support she needs to raise a disabled child, to also make that a viable choice. Or, we might argue that a disabled person has a right to refuse life-saving treatment, but we need to also think about how to make sure we create a society in which a person with a severe disability can live well and isn't faced with a life of being locked away in a nursing home.
Q: Have there been ways that you've noticed your work in philosophy impacting your other work, like your activism or other areas of your life?
A: Some say that philosophy is a way of life more than it is even an academic discipline, and I think there is certainly some truth to that. My training in philosophy may mean that my basic orientation to the world is a bit different than it would have been. I probably overthink everyday choices more than many people. That is probably what Leah would tell you. In some ways, because both my activism and my philosophical work have been focused on disability rights, in a way it's probably hard to clearly define where my philosophical work ends and activist work begins. The tools may be different. Writing a scholarly journal article is different than organizing a protest action. But, to me, it's all one project.
Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?
A: I am a rabid college football fanatic.
Q: Describe your ideal San Diego weekend.
A: It would definitely involve time spent by the water with my family, and a date night in Little Italy with Leah.
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