MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Mahopac alumni Ben Duffy and Michael Sassano have paired up to create a feature-length documentary, “Tin Soldiers,” to highlight the experiences of adaptive athletes.
The two, now in their 20s, met on the bus when they were 13 and began skateboarding around the same age. They began filming each other and eventually went on to study film the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
While they have graduated from filming themselves with an old video camera, skateboarding remains a common theme in their productions. Their last feature length documentary, “HeartChild,” followed the founder of A.skate Foundation, Crys Worley, and her family. A.skate foundation is a non-profit organization that allows children with autism to develop socialization skills through skateboarding. Now, “Tin Soldiers,” offers a glimpse into what being an athlete is like for those who participate in adaptive sports with conditions such as paralysis, palsy, spina bifida or those who are amputees.
The athletes in the film participate in activities including but not limited to: skateboarding, surfing, power-lifting, CrossFit and basketball. A four-time Paralympian, Alana Nichols, who is featured in the film has received gold medals in alpine skiing and women’s basketball.
Duffy is the film’s director and Sassano is co-producer, co-cinematographer and assisting editor of the film. Sassano said they create films that have a purpose or relate to a cause.
The films Duffy and Sassano create capture the full spectrum of emotions that go along with these issues without lingering in the heaviness of some of the subject matter.
“It’s really easy with this kind of subject matter to get sappy and sad and I think that stuff is important to highlight but I don’t think you want to stay on it too long,” Sassano said. “In this film, it’s all exciting, it’s all fun—it’s all positive. We have our moments when our subjects are talking about their accidents or what happened to them, or how they felt and the judgements they’ve had to face…it’s very important to highlight that stuff. But what we really want to show is how incredibly inspiring these people’s attitudes are.”
Duffy, who said he feels lucky to meet such positive people said he never consciously chooses to portray someone in a certain light; he documents the way they are and in these cases they have been inspiring.
“Everyone in the film is sharing their truths,” said Duffy. “And sometimes truths can be saddening, but everyone’s sadness or struggles lead to their triumph as an athlete and a human being…My films present real challenges and bring you into realities most people just want to ignore because it’s easiest to do so.”
The idea for the film was introduced to them by Matthew Hawkins, founder of The Adaptive Skate Kollective in Kansas City. An adaptive skater himself, Hawkins was passionate about raising awareness for his organization.
Hawkins said he didn’t want the film to over glorify what adaptive athletes do, but wanted to showcase how the disabled and able-bodied are similar by bridging the disconnect he says he sees in the portrayal of the two in general. He hopes to achieve this by showing able-bodied people and disabled doing the same sport.
“We are equals,” he stressed.
Another important intention of the film for him was to show how adaptive athletes can perform in sports and not only excel, but be OK. He said concerned families and guardians often don’t let their disabled children participate in activities as an act of protection and in doing so deny them essential life skills.
“Parents forget they’re not going to be around forever and if you baby your child they’re missing out on the things they need to grow as individuals,” he said. “If something were to happen to you how are they going to be able to submerse themselves into the world?”
Hawkins said he has seen the film and said he feels the topic was covered fairly. He said he planted the idea but the product Duffy and Sassano created exceeded his expectations. He credits this to Duffy’s immersive directorial style. He said Duffy stayed at his home during the filming in Kansas City and accompanied him to events and met members of the organization and their friends. He said having a third-party person there offered a unique take on the topic.
Duffy said he felt humbled by someone seeing his other work and wanting to work with him. At first, Duffy said the film was supposed to be a 10-minute short about adaptive skating. No one knew it would evolve into a full-length film on adaptive sports.
“Usually at the inception of a film there’s that ‘aha’ moment,” Sassano said, “There’s something here I can highlight or create that I think will entertain or help people. I think that comes from within a lot of times. Even though Ben was introduced to the idea of this movie I think the aha moment still happened when we got to our first event where we were filming athletes and we were like, ‘wow this is something special—we do have to do this film.’”
The name comes from one of Duffy’s favorite songs by The Small Faces.
“I thought, well, everyone in the film is like a soldier in which they have to physically fight a fight that most people don't have to, for their own freedom,” he said. “And then ‘tin’ symbolizes the prosthetic limbs or wheel chairs.”
The film is now in post-production and will be sent to festivals for screening. The film will likely be available to the public next spring after a festival is chosen to showcase it. The major hurdle of the film has been funding, said Sassano.
“We’re both independent film-makers so we do this on own dime,” he said. “The hardest part to bear about doing these films is the uncertainty of not knowing where the film will end up or how many people will get to see it, or the final platform for where this film goes. “
They have an Indiegogo campaign if readers would like to see the trailer for the film or donate. Visit indiegogo.com and search for “Tin Solders” for more information.