BROOKLINE – In her decades-long career as an award-winning filmmaker, Andrea Kalin has traveled the globe, from Syria to Haiti, and across the country, shining light on compelling, often little known stories of courage and triumph over adversity.
The Brookline native’s newest film, “Scattering CJ,” is closer to home, a tug-at-your-heart film that tells the story of a New England family who lost their 20-year-old son, Christopher John Twomey, known as CJ, to suicide and his mother’s inspiring devotion to keep his memory alive.
In the midst of her anguish and grief following CJ’s tragic and shocking death, his mother, Hallie Twomey, reached out to friends on Facebook asking for help scattering CJ’s remains as a final tribute that reflected his passion to see the world.
Her deeply personal plea struck a chord well beyond anything she could have imagined, with 1,000 people from more than 100 countries responding and attracting a social media following of some 21,000 people.
That groundswell of support bolstered the Twomeys during their mourning and paved a path for Hallie Twomey to find her voice to speak publicly in order to dispel the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide.
Five years in the making, “Scattering CJ” captures that journey in Kalin’s sensitively crafted, revealing and ultimately uplifting film.
“Scattering CJ” is one of 18 full-length and short films that will screen online for Boston’s 10th anniversary ReelAbilities film festival, which runs virtually from May 6-13. The festival is virtual for the second year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
ReelAbilities, a national festival that showcases the lives and stories of people with disabilities, is presented locally by the Boston Jewish Film Festival. In Boston, the films are free of charge (donations welcome) with registration for a festival pass (bostonjfilm.org). All screenings include captioning and audio descriptions where possible.
The internationally made films are diverse and geared toward a wide nonsectarian audience. Over the years, many of the films have boasted noted Jewish and Israeli filmmakers and many also include Jewish subjects or themes.
In reflecting back on the years-long journey of making “Scattering CJ,” Kalin said she was most struck by a sense of tikkun olam, the Jewish teaching to repair the world that informed her upbringing, growing up in a Jewish family in Brookline.
“There is no better representation of the kindness of strangers and the power of human connection and hope than what was shown in this story. The entire world gave this family a global hug. It spoke to my Jewish soul,” Kalin told the Journal in a phone conversation.
The writers, musicians, activists and educators featured in this year’s films represent a wide range of physical and neurological diversity, according to ReelAbilities festival director Katka Reszke.
“ReelAbilities wants to create a space where disabled people are seen, as opposed to just looked at. We strive to continuously challenge the notion of normal,” Reszke said in an email.
Running the festival virtually has broadened accessibility, Reszke told the Journal. “People who would never be able to attend our screenings were able to attend the festival [last year],” she said. She anticipates the same this year.
The festival features four live broadcast events including an opening night program on May 6, with artist and disability advocate Riva Lehrer in conversation with local arts writer Judy Bolton-Fasman. The progams, which begin at 7 p.m., will be captioned and some will include ASL interpretation.
On May 10, Kalin and Hallie Twomey, along with photography director Ethan Oser will answer questions about “Scattering CJ.”
On May 13, award-winning media veterans Caren Zucker and John Donvan will talk about “In A Different Key,” the film they co-produced, based on their book by the same name.
Their remarkable documentary, graced with an original score by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Wynton Marsalis, traces the first person ever diagnosed with autism, now an elderly man in the rural south, where his hometown residents embrace him.
In the intimate, revealing film, Zucker and her grown son Mickey, who has autism, share their family’s struggles and achievements. The film also highlights the experiences of others including the touching story of an African American father caring alone for his son.
“Not Going Quietly,” a new release getting lots of buzz, tells the inspiring story of Ady Barkan, an Israeli American who, as a new father, was diagnosed with the debilitating disease ALS which has since paralyzed him. Barkan, a lawyer turned political activist, crisscrossed the country advocating for health-care funding.
Among the shorts are “Coexist,” a stunningly beautiful Persian film about a blind man who lives on Hormuz Island in Southern Iran, and “Pickle Man,” the story of the late photographer Arthur Cohen who turned his love of pickles into a national fundraising effort for ALS, the disease that claimed his life.
For more information and to register for the films, visit Reel Abilities Film Festival, bostonjfilm.org.