A Boy’s Prayer, a Filmmaker’s Passion: An Interview with Director Ilana Trachtman

ilana trachtman

"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

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
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.

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