Faith elevates young star of ‘Praying with Lior’ as he tackles congenital condition
It’s impossible to watch "Praying with Lior'' and not be touched by the sweet and genuine nature of the documentary’s star. Lior Liebling, 12, is the happiest pre-teen on earth as he prepares for his Bar Mitzvah. He’s energetic, curious, a great religious student, and he has a supportive and loving family. The only thing that separates Lior from other kids his age is that he has Down syndrome.
"I don’t have Down syndrome,'' Lior says with a wide smile in response to the filmmakers in the movie, "I have Up syndrome.'' It’s open and raw moments like these that define this documentary.
The film is the baby of Ilana Trachtman, 36, an award-winning producer/director of documentaries and children’s television programs, including work with Sesame Workshop. Trachtman’s credits include work on HBO Family, Lifetime, Discovery, and numerous others. "Praying with Lior'' is her first independent film and it was given the Audience Award, best Documentary at the Boston Jewish Film Festival in 2007.
"I saw Lior – a child with Down syndrome – praying at a Jewish New Year service and I was mesmerized by him,'' Trachtman said. ``His praying was so focused and so pure, while mine felt meaningless and detached. I wanted to understand how come he could do what I couldn’t – and the pursuit of that question lead to the film.''
Audiences want to know the answer as well. ``Praying with Lior'' recently won its fifth Audience Award for Best Documentary at a festival with nods in Washington and San Diego in addition to Boston. Trachtman said she’s somewhat shocked by the exuberance and reaction to the film from people who might not be considered within the movie’s target demographic.
Response has been great from "People who aren’t Jewish, or who don’t know anyone with a disability, or who don’t like documentaries. They’re going to the film and then getting all their friends to see it,'' Trachtman said.
Shot over the course of three years, the film focuses on the months leading up to Lior’s Bar Mitzvah in 2004 and draws a riveting portrait of a high-functioning, quick-witted, friendly and sincere boy who is both "retarded'' and, according to his many admirers, a "spiritual genius.'' A quote in the film from Lior’s father helps sum up the simplicity with which it seems Lior is able to address and enjoy his devout faith. ``Lior is closer to God because he has less veils between him and the world,'' explains Mordecai Liebling, a nationally known rabbi and former director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. Faith can be simple is a theme throughout the film.
Trachtman is drawn to the independent movie world because of the freedom it gives an artist, but she knows it’s a medium with many obstacles. "Independent film is an incredibly hard way to make a living,'' she explains. "That said, I love being able to tell a story exactly as I want it to be told.''
The movie unfolds somewhat like engaging reality TV but also covers a great deal of time. A sub-theme throughout is the relationship Lior had with his late mother, Rabbi Devorah Bartnoff, who died from cancer when Lior was 6. It’s sweet to see Lior speak candidly about how he knows his mother’s spirit will be at his Bar Mitzvah. It’s bittersweet to listen to Lior’s father’s sullen realization that Lior’s Bar Mitzvah will be the highlight of his son’s young life for years to come.
Trachtman gets hundreds of e-mails a week from people who love the film and find it uplifting. "I never expected that,'' notes Trachtman, "but I think Lior’s story taps into people’s longing and appreciation of unconditional love.''
The film’s success has made Lior a quasi-celebrity; he’s now a public figure who is routinely asked by strangers for his autograph. "He’s learned to be very poised, polite, and gracious. He’s also gotten very good at answering questions,'' said Trachtman.
"Lior loved the film from the first time he watched it. (He seems to) experience it in real time. He watches the difficult scenes as though they are happening for the first time, he laughs at his own jokes, and he also relives his Bar Mitzvah.''
Lior’s family struggled initially when they first saw the film. "They had a hard time seeing themselves on camera and also seeing their lives through the narrative arc I imposed,'' explains Trachtman. "After a few viewings, they’ve come to embrace the film and appreciate the opportunity that it presents to show a model of inclusion and the contributions that a person like Lior can make.''
The Patriot Ledger