INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Matthew Charof on the Women of Riverbook

28 Apr

While scrolling through my twitter feed the other day, I noticed a post —  from a college friend — that was simply a link. Of course, it piqued my curiosity. What I discovered on the landing page of that lonely bit.ly was truly a gift.

The Riverbrook Residence (whose catch-phrase is “where exceptional women thrive”, which I love) is an all-women group home for developmentally disabled women in Massachusetts. Not only does the video paint a beautiful picture of the home nestled in the Berkshires, it also provides tender and candid moments that illuminate the supportive environment created for these women.

One of my favorite things about Riverbrook is their nutrition program. (You know I love food.) Women at Riverbrook are enabled to make their own choices about their individual diet and exercise needs, and they help prepare homemade meals, with food grown organically in their own garden. I think there is nothing more empowering than educating someone to make decisions and take personal responsibility to lead a life of agency. This is often overlooked in the world of care for the disabled.

I caught up with the filmmaker commissioned for the piece above,  Matthew Charof, to ask him about his experiences filming and interacting with the women at the Riverbrook Residence.

When you heard that it was a residence for disabled women, what were you thinking? What kind of expectations or reservations did you have going into it? 

When I heard about the project, I was very curious to learn about the women of Riverbrook, considering I had not done any work like this before. I did my research and had many conversations going in, so I knew exactly what to expect, although there were definitely some surprises along the way. 

What were some of those surprises?

The most surprising thing about Riverbrook was the ability all the women had to live normal, fulfilling lives. They all had a really strong sense of community and worked together to keep the morale inside the home very high and positive. I was also very surprised at how a lot of the women were very high functioning and responsive. They were very excited to see us every time we were around, and remembered our names. These very special moments bonding with the women really taught me how important places like Riverbrook are. 

What inspired you while you were making the video?

One thing that really inspired me during this process was learning about the music program that is offered to the women. Jessica Roemischer, a pianist and educator, teaches a piano class to the woman there, and it is just magical. The attitude that she brings to the table is so uplifting and empowering. She really encourages the women to fully express themselves through music no matter what skill level they are on the piano. 

What kind of interactions did you have with the ladies?

We spent two days with the ladies of Riverbrook. We documented their activities and programs, ate lunch with them and went with them to their community volunteer and work places. Conversing with the women was very comfortable and interesting. They were all very curious and asked a lot of questions. One woman we met there we really connected with. Her name is Tanny. She is autistic and blind. She can play the piano magnificently and has absolute perfect pitch. At one point, I was taking pictures of her with my shutter speed set to 60. After a couple shots, she yells out – ‘That’s a 60th!” I couldn’t believe it! I changed my shutter to 125 and asked her what she heard then, and she was right on 125th. We played this game for a while until it was time for the next activity. I was so in awe of Tammy and really inspired by her ability to over achieve and break the norms. A savant for sure.

Do you think that living communities like this can be empowering for women, specifically disabled women?

Riverbrook is a wonderful community that really gives the women there a way of living a very full life. They really empower the women to stand up for themselves and teach them that they have rights as women and individuals. While interviewing one of the staff members, she told us a story of a trip to a restaurant where the women really felt that the waiter there was rude to them. They all got together to write a letter to the restaurant to express their feelings of how they were treated. The restaurant apologized and I think gave them free dinner. Just the fact that the women were able to realize and express their distaste with the service really shows how well educated and aware they are. 

What kind of repercussions/impact do you hope this video will have, in terms of educating viewers?

We made this video for Riverbrook for their open house and website. After posting it on my blog it has gotten such great responses that I never thought would come. I hope that people continue to watch the film and become inspired by it. I would love to continue doing this type of work in the future… I actually just got an inquiry about a very similar project, so I am very excited about that. I hope my viewers are inspired to educate themselves about developmental disabilities and think about if they have a program like that in their own community that they can get involved with.

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Matthew Charof is a freelance filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn. He works, among other things, on a project called ThisOneCamera, and blogs here

This post brought to you by Tara, who thanks Mat kindly for his beautiful work. 

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One Response to “INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Matthew Charof on the Women of Riverbook”

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