"April Fools!" Lior Liebling says to people when he realizes he has unintentionally embarrassed himself. This exclamation highlights not only his high functionality as a boy with Down syndrome, but also his innate charm and likability. These traits are on full display in Ilana Trachtman’s new documentary, Praying with Lior, which traces Lior’s journey toward his Bar Mitzvah.
Lior’s passion for davening (i.e., praying) has drawn much attention in his Philadelphia religious community. Lior’s father, himself a Rabbi, pushes Lior to earn his Mitzvah during lessons by having him state the Torah’s importance. When Lior responds with great passion but less clarity, his father cannot deny his son’s faith and smiles: "That sounds pretty good!"
Absent from the story is Lior’s mother, Devora, who’s seen only in archival footage. Also a Rabbi, she spotted Lior’s devotion to prayer early and eagerly anticipated his Bar Mitzvah before passing away when Lior was six. An intimate portrait of Lior’s journey, Trachtman’s film captures the complexities of the Liebling family, including a concerned stepmother, a dutiful brother, and an alienated sister.
Identity Theory‘s Matthew Sorrento recently caught up with Trachtman, a veteran TV director, for a phone interview about documenting Lior.
Praying with Lior has significant scope. At what point did you realize that you wanted to commit yourself to such an extensive project?
I was committed emotionally before I even realized it. I met Lior, then heard he was having a Bar Mitzvah, and knew someone should make a movie about him. When I approached his family, they said that they always wanted someone to make a film about him, too. As soon as this happened, I was set on a course. When people say to me, “You took such a risk,” “You were so brave (to make the film),” or “What a leap of faith,” I almost cannot relate to those comments–I just felt like I didn’t have a choice.
You seem very up close and intimate with your subject. Did you have any techniques or approaches to get “up close” with Lior and his family?
When I teach documentary interviewing, I teach my students that in a way it’s like being a shrink–you kind of have to fall in love with [the people you are interviewing]. And they have to believe that you are in love with them. In the case of Lior and his family, it wasn’t very hard. It’s a quality of attention with which you pay somebody that inspires them to be generous towards you. Interviewing is really a loving exchange, and it’s really about listening. It’s about creating an intimate experience and not manipulating someone into spitting out dirty laundry.
I admire all documentarians who refuse to look away at the tough moments. Were there any moments when you felt like you wanted to stop the camera? One moment that comes to mind is when Lior and his father are at the mother’s grave, crying.
That was really hard. At the grave, we had already lived with the family for months. They knew us really well, but I still felt that [scene] was too intimate, too close. I wasn’t even behind the camera during that scene. I was several feet away and sent the cameraperson over. But even when I saw the footage, I was so struck by it and had to figure out how I was going to edit that scene.
If you were standing there, do you think you would have pulled the cameraperson back?
Honestly, I have no idea. [Laughs] Actually, no–I don’t think I would have pulled him back. I don’t think I would have because I had never pulled [Slawomir Grunberg, Lior's cinematographer] back before. It’s just not my way, and I trust [my cameraperson] since I have been working with him for a long time. The physical presence of another person would have made things very hard. It’s a really tight situation to get beautiful shots when you have another body, that physical space, there behind the camera.
In the scene when Lior loses his shoe behind his house, I was right there. And that was really difficult for me. He was so scared of his dog [who began to bark behind him]. I knew he wasn’t going to find his shoe, which was in a huge pile of leaves about three feet deep and really wide. I couldn’t stand it anymore to watch him be so scared.
It seems like he couldn’t focus on so many things at once: looking for his shoe and the dog barking behind him.
In a scene we cut, Lior is in a completely safe situation: he’s with his dad, and you see a really friendly dog, but Lior is still terrified of it. [In the scene where he loses his shoe,] I knew where his shoe was. I let it go on for as long for as I could, and then I had to stop it and give him his shoe.
It is a great scene for character development. It shows another angle about him that the viewer doesn’t get in the rest of the documentary.
What I wanted to do is show that Lior can get himself into a situation that makes him uncomfortable. He’s the one who calls the dog over; he makes that happen. Then, he’s totally upset by it. Is Lior really going to be safe in the world?–I don’t know.
Lior Liebling with his brother, Yoni. "People tiptoe around disability, but Lior has such a well-developed sense of comic timing."
Has anyone accused you of “exploiting” Lior by making the film?
No, no one really has. Lior is so beloved, not just by his family, but by his school and his community, that everyone who really knew what was going on was so happy that his story was going to get told. They were happy that other people were going to enjoy Lior’s spirit like they do. I was really close with everybody. I never barged into Lior’s school or anything. There was always meetings beforehand, and discussions, so people understood my intentions. I did research special needs a lot and talked to a lot of people to think about things that I may not have been sensitive to. Even the whole conflict of that fact that I am shooting a character whose consent isn’t necessarily in his own best interest. During editing, I asked myself this about every scene: If Lior didn’t have Down syndrome, would this moment embarrass him?
People tiptoe around disability, but Lior had such a well-developed sense of comic timing. And he’s able to push back. At one point he says to me: “That’s the answer to the question!” [Laughs] Which is really, in parenthesis: you dumbass. This gives the audience permission to laugh, whereas a lot of times with disabled people, people don’t feel that permission to laugh. Even though someone’s behavior may be really funny or even inappropriate. Lior gives us permission to laugh by making fun of me!
Did you edit out any moments to make the final cut more comfortable to mainstream viewers?
Actually, I would say the opposite. I made sure to include any instance where Lior is being difficult or less lovable. I wanted to include the full picture, because Lior happens to be so charming and manageable as a kid with Down syndrome for the most part. Out of 200 hours of footage, all of Lior’s tantrums are in the film.
One interviewee in your film suggests that Lior would have gotten into any form of spirituality if he were exposed to it. Do you agree with her point?
I think that Lior’s ability to pray and his connection to spirituality is a combination of a lot of things. I agree with her in that he is socially gifted. He’s really good at reading a situation and delivering what he thinks people want to hear. He certainly is in a community that values ecstatic prayer. But it is his natural inclination. The other kids in his family have no interest in praying, and they were raised in the same community. Lior’s natural inclination and the community’s response feed off each other.
How do you approach editing 200 hours of footage? Did you know to begin with the scene in which Lior tells the camera to move back and establish boundaries?
That was the very last scene we did. We cut the whole movie and then realized we needed that [scene]. It took so long to figure out how to edit this movie — so much longer than I’m even comfortable to talk about. [Laughs] I work in television. Right now I’m working on a series that will have 13 episodes. The whole process, from preproduction to delivery, will be about six months. [Lior] took three and half years to make. The lynchpin in editing the film was embracing the thread of his mother. At first I didn’t want to go near it because I thought that it would have been exploitive. The other issue about editing was the question of how much praying and god do we put into this. For a lot of people, it’s irrelevant.
Did you feel similar pressures when trying to film the many elements of Lior’s story?
No. Fortunately, the whole experience [of shooting] was more instinctive than anything I’ve ever done in my life. Piecing it together was another story.