In Their Own Words

BFF directors share their thoughts in Q&As


The Free Weekly’s Melissa Gute exchanged questions and answers with three BFF filmmakers, just in time for the film festival’s last weekend:

Son inspires Habib to tell stories through films


Dan Habib is bringing two films to this year’s Bentonville Film Festival. Both focus on the inclusion of those with disabilities.

Intelligent Lives is a feature length documentary film that Habib has been working on for four years. It’s hitting the festival circuit now with this week’s festival being its fourth screening.

Mr. Connolly has ASL is a short film that was released a year ago. It’s been shown at festivals and screenings and will be broadcast on public television nationally in June.

Habib is a writer, director and cinematographer. He shared with the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette how having a son with cerebral palsy inspired him to become a filmmaker, how telling stories of those with disabilities promotes inclusion and how the Bentonville Film Festival differs than other film festivals.

Why did you get into filmmaking?

My film work started with my film Including Samuel, which is about my son, Samuel. Samuel is a high school senior and is really active with his friends and with school, is on the honor roll, is talking about college classes next year.

He also has cereal palsy, is in a wheel chair and uses a communication device to communicate. He has a lot of seizures and underlying health issues.

That Including Samuel film changed my whole career from being a journalist — I was a photojournalist for 20 years — to being a filmmaker. I say that because all my films have a disability connection.

I’m actually based at the Institute on Disability at the University of New Hampshire, but my full-time job is just doing documentary films.

Talk more about the two films you’re bringing to the Bentonville Film Festival.

Intelligent Lives is my third feature length film. It’s an attempt to have people see intelligence much more broadly. We tend to get stuck on trying to measure intelligence with things like intelligence tests, SAT scores and standardized tests. Students with intellectual disabilities and adults with intellectual disabilities are often left out of the mix. They’re segregated in separate classrooms, they’re not working in real jobs, they’re not necessarily seen as having relationships.

The film blows up the whole notion that there’s any way to measure a person’s intelligence in a way to predict potential for them to participate in the world, in school and employment. It does it through three stories of the three central characters and also through the narration of Academy Award-winner Chris Cooper, who like me, shares the experience of having a child with a disability and having them be underestimated.

Mr. Connolly has ALS has been doing more touring, but the interesting twist on this film is it’s a film I made while doing Intelligent Lives and I never was really planning to.

My son, Samuel, his high school principal and he had a discussion one day years ago, and neither one of them could speak verbally. Mr. Connolly had developed ALS and developed the inability to speak and walk. They’re at the homecoming parade communicating through devices and gestures and am thinking this can’t be happening in the world that a student is talking to his principal and neither one can speak.

I did a short film that got a lot of national attention about what it felt like for Mr. Connolly to comes to terms with acquiring a disability and loosing the ability to speak and walk while continuing to lead the school and the incredibly supportive reaction that the school community and students have given him.

Have you been to this festival before?

No, I’ve never been. I’m really excited about it. I’ve heard about it, and I’ve heard it’s a great festival, then I heard it’s theme was around inclusion, and I was like oh my gosh, all my films are based on inclusion, this is a really good match.

What are you hoping viewers come away with after seeing your films at the festival?

I think this applies to both films in a way. I think that in our society people who are different because they have a disability, they can’t speak in a typical way or move in a typical way, are automatically seen as less intelligent by most people.

I hope people see this film and the next time they see someone who can’t talk in a way that’s seen as “normal” or can’t walk in a way that’s seen as “normal,” that they presume that these people have strengths, and they are competent to be in regular schools, in regular jobs, in relationships and living full lives in their communities. It will hopefully be a catalyst for a whole mind shift in intelligence and disability.

What are Samuel’s post-high school plans?

I think one of the reasons I felt so compelled to tell the stories in Intelligent Lives is because my son is at that age now, transitioning from school to his future.

For kids with significant disabilities, it’s not very simple because you don’t get adult services until you’re 21. If you graduate, get your diploma and leave your school, you fall off a cliff in terms of services.

So Samuel will continue to get some support from his school around occupational therapy, mental therapy, speech therapy. He’ll probably continue taking some interesting elective courses at his school. He’s also going to start taking classes at a local community college. He’s going to do leadership training on disability advocacy here at the University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability, where I’m at.

He and I are talking about co-directing, co-producing a sequel to my film Including SamuelIncluding Samuelwas on public television. It was translated into 17 languages, it’s still showing all around the world.

People always ask me what is he doing now, where’s he going. If we could produce a sequel, I think it would be very powerful.

He also just wants to work. He likes doing his own films and video production. He wants to continue to work in that field.

When you approached him about making a film about him, what was his response?

When I made Including Samuel, he was 3 or 4. Very young. He’s very relaxed around the camera. I did show him a cut of the film by the time he was 7 or so when we were getting ready to release it. I wouldn’t put anything in the film he didn’t want to have in the film. My whole family had that power over the film because they’re all very much telling an intimate story about their experience around disability and inclusion.

Now, I think throughout Samuel’s life, we’ve tried to support his self determination. We’ve tried to include him with making decisions on every aspect of life down to the elective surgeries he might have for health reasons to how he wants to spend his future.

I think that will certainly be the case with this new film, which is why I want him to be a co-director, co-producer and to have as much creative control over it as I do.

Do you have any expectations? What’s it like going to a new festival verses one that you’ve been to and know?

I think each festival has it different culture. It has a different niche. One of the senses I get from Bentonville is that they put a lot of energy into connecting filmmakers with media producers or media gate keepers and also corporations that believe in inclusion.

That’s not the case with a lot of other festivals. I’ve never heard of another festival where that’s a central part of the mission.

I think my expectation for Bentonville is that I’ll have a really unique experience around connecting with other parts of the business landscape around films, whether it’s the people that put the films in theaters, put the DVDs on the shelves, that are employers that care about this and maybe are hiring diverse people, whether it’s people with disabilities or others.

Frankly, the most meaningful thing is just talking to the audience after the screening. No matter who shows up, whether it’s 20 people or 500 people, having those conversations where people can ask you questions about the film, the characters, your motivation for doing it, share their reactions to the film, that to me is the most powerful part of these festivals.


Laurenzo offers insight on Lez Bomb


Lez Bomb uses comedy to tell about a young woman who brings her girlfriend home for Thanksgiving to meet the family, but her coming out efforts are thwarted by the unexpected arrival of her male roommate.

Jenna Laurenzo wrote, directed and acts in her first feature film. Bobby Farrelly, known for his work on Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary is the executive producer. It stars Academy Award winner Cloris Leachman, Academy nominated Bruce Dern, Emmy Award winner Kevin Kane and an ensemble cast that includes Steve Guttenberg, Kevin Pollak, Elaine Hendrix, Deirdre O’Connell, Brandon Michael Hall, and Caitlin Mehner.

The film will have its world premiere Thursday and be shown second time Friday. It has a 90-minute run time.

Laurenzo, based in New Jersey, recently spoke with the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the film, that it was inspired by moments of her own coming-out journey and her thoughts about premiering them film in Arkansas, typically known as a conservative state.

A lot of coming-out stories are heavy. Can you discuss the role that comedy plays in this movie?

It was really important for me to write a comedy in this space because of that reason. A lot of the coming-out stories that I had access to when I was going through it were dramatic. When you have distance between going through it and looking back on it, I think that allows you to look at challenging emotions through a comedic lens.

And I really wanted to tap into the universality of it. It’s difficult coming home and coming out with really any sort of truth that your family’s not expecting. Sexuality is one thing, but everybody has their own situations going on. Coming home for the holidays tends to be stressful regardless if you’re coming out of the closet because your family has expectations, and you hope to live up to their expectations. Sometimes those expectations don’t match with the reality of those expectations.

Even though it is a coming out story, there’s a more universal theme of everyone has their own thing and are not sure how people, in this case their family, will react.

Could you share a little bit about your coming out journey?

It was difficult for me. I really try to make this point in Lez Bomb where the self acceptance that the character I’m playing is fighting for is my own. Personally, I had reluctance to come to terms with it because it didn’t match up with this future I had envisioned growing up.

With lack of exposure, it’s not until you think ‘oh, maybe this is where my life is going’ and then (it’s not until you see) other people, you can relate with them, it’s an option.

My family, my parents in particular, are very wonderful, supportive and loving, but I didn’t tell them. I had built this scenario in my head where they weren’t going to understand it, and I was mad at them for something that had never even happened.

By the time I did tell them, I was angry at them for not accepting me but I never even gave them the option to because I didn’t tell them. If anything, I hope to encourage people not to waste time, their truths and authenticity.

How do you think your journey or your experiences would have been different had their been more films like Lez Bomb to give you exposure that you didn’t have in a more light-hearted way?

A lot of the movies were dramatic and many of them did not have happy endings and so I just really wanted that hopeful, big happy ending that some times life isn’t always a happy ending. I do think it’s important to have faith in the happy ending.

This will be your first time to the Bentonville Film Festival. What drew you to this festival?

Everything the Bentonville festival stands for is really in line with what my producers and I personally are attracted to with greater representation of underserved demographics. The female filmmaking aspect, the lack of female directors and writers and roles, I like the fact that Bentonville actively trying to put light on the fact that we need greater representation. I see all these things being posted on social media, “If they can see it, they can be it,” and I think that’s so important.

What are your expectations for the festival?

I would hate to say that I have expectations because, you know, sometimes our expectations don’t match up with reality. I am looking very much forward to premiering this film in Arkansas, specifically, because it is not where I expected to premiere a film called Lez Bomb. There’s something hopeful and optimistic about that in itself.”

Are you nervous to premiere the film here?

Here’s the thing. I was told from everyone that the person who was going to be financing was going to be a woman, she may be behind the LGBTQ cause, she would be super liberal, ectera, ectera. It was a guy who ends up financing my movie, and he’s Republican from the south. So I think that made me very aware that sometimes we have these assumptions that may be totally off the mark.

Laurenzo and cast members will hold a Q&A after each screening.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Young filmmaker showcases When Jeff Tries to Save the World at Bentonville Film Festival


Kendall Goldberg has been working on When Jeff Tried to Save the World for five years, most of the time when she was studying film at Chapman University in California.

It’s the 22-year-old’s first feature film. She wrote and directed it.

It stars Jon Heder from Napoleon Dynamite, who plays a 30-something manager of a bowling alley, Jeff, and tries to save it from going out of business.

The film recently premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival and has been shown at two others before coming to the Bentonville Film Festival, where it will show Wednesday and Thursday.

It’ll be Goldberg’s first visit to Arkansas. She recently visited with Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about what it took to create the film, her expectations for this week’s festival and advice for young, aspiring filmmakers.

How did you get the idea for this film?

It started as this idea where I wanted to make a film in a bowling alley. It was as simple as that, and it grew into something much more.

It’s a story with a pretty universal theme. It deals with change. It’s something that we all go through in our lives, many times.

For the character of Jeff he’s loosing his home and this place where he has this very strict routine. He lives this comfortable life, and it’s all about to be taken away. It’s the story of his journey as to whether or not he fights the change or whether he learns to embrace it.

And it’s a dramedy?

We wanted to be clear to people they’re not going to go see Napoleon Dynamite 2. John gives a really great dramatic performance in this film.

It’s about a guy who is in his 30s. He’s working at a bowling alley. He’s struggling. He loves what he does, but he’s embarrassed that he loves what he does because he got a degree that could have taken him so much further.

What has your experience been being a woman trying to get into this industry and being 22, no less?

It’s a good question and it’s something like I imagine my answer will grow, largely as I continue on in the industry and have had more time working on more projects, have more experience and meet more people.

Luckily the people I’ve surrounded myself with, by choice, are really supportive of women filmmakers. We all have a common goal, and that’s sort of what it was, a big-family-on-set vibe when we made our movie.

When we were actually making the movie I really didn’t have to deal with anything unwelcome. Along the way, yeah sure, there have been people who didn’t believe in me.

There were times where I would have meetings with men who would not take me seriously because of my age or my gender or a combination, I don’t really know. It was just like if they didn’t take me seriously, then I would move on and go to another person for find a way to work a way around it.

What did you do prior to making this film? How did you get to this point?

I think it was about the end of freshman year at Chapman University when I came up with this idea with my writing partner. She was going to college in the midwest so we lived cross country and we would Skype weekly, maybe bi-weekly and talk about our ideas. We started forming the idea for this feature narrative, and we basically wrote the script together through Skype in like a month.

Once we got the script written, we started sending it out to collaborators, friends and family and started rewriting it and we thought we’d be making the movie within a year, but that was obviously not the case.

I had a lot to learn, experience wise, financing wise, we had lot of rewrites to do. I was trying to make this movie while I was in school. As each summer passed, I didn’t have what I needed financially, cast-wise and all that jazz to make the movie. My mentor kept saying it’s not meant to be this year, it’ll happen when it happens. He was right and it ended up being so perfect that it happened.

It happened right when I graduated. I graduated last May, and we shot it in August. Part of the process to get to that point was in the summer of 2016 I took a step back and decided to condense the feature into a short script.

We shot the short in Chicago in the same bowling alley that we shot the feature. We shot the short for four days. We shot the feature for 18. We shot the short, and that sort of ended up being the missing piece of the puzzle to get more financing and production companies to back us.

How did Jon Heder become involved?

Jon Heder became involved three years ago before the short was ever an idea. It was an initial casting search and he came in to audition, and we were all really stoked. He was awesome. I basically was just like, ‘I want to give you the role, but we don’t have money to make the movie.’ He was like, ‘OK, well just let me know.’

I just kept in touch with him. We formed a friendship. When it came time to shoot the short, I told him we were going to shoot the short in Chicago over four days and see if he was interested. He did, and we and the rest of the cast was on board for the short and the feature. It was really great, and we had that working relationship and friendship and the trust and respect that was there we started to form with that short.

Do you have any expectations for the Bentonville Film Festival?

I really hoping to meet some cool female filmmakers. I have a lot of male mentors, and they’re all great and they’re all super helpful, but it would be super helpful to meet someone who is female and has gone through some of the issues I expect to go through and be able to bounce ideas off of.

What advice would you give to any high schooler who is an aspiring filmmaker?

It’s really for everyone, which ever industry you’re in. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Don’t ever give up, and don’t take no for an answer. I guess I’m proof of that because I didn’t take no for an answer and I made a movie at 22. It’s cool…I worked really hard on the film, and so many other people put their heart and soul into this movie.

What are your career aspirations?

To get to a place, and I don’t know if this place exists or will ever exist, but I would love to just get to a place where I can keep making movies, independent films the way that I want them to be made and not have to struggle — I think it’ll always be a struggle and there will always be different kinds of struggles, but I’m hoping to find a way to find money easier and not have to wait five to eight to 10 years every time I want to make a project.

Melissa Gute can be reached at or on Twitter @NWAMelissa.

Categories: Entertainment