Canton’s Matty Christian profiled in powerful new filmBy Jay Turner
To a generation of Canton residents, the story of Matthew G. Christian is a deeply familiar one — tragic in its ending yet inspirational and life-affirming in ways that many will never forget.
Born without full limbs but with a big heart and a fighter’s spirit, “Matty” somehow managed to be as ordinary as he was extraordinary, and in the process helped to redefine what it means to be disabled in an era when disabilities were still widely misunderstood.
It is this remarkable legacy — of strength, resilience, and determination — that forms the basis of a new feature-length documentary by Breaking Branches Pictures, Raising Matty Christian.
Directed, filmed and edited by award-winning Rhode Island filmmaker Christian de Rezendes, the soon-to-be released film draws on archival footage from Christian family home movies, as well as interviews from Matty’s family, friends, neighbors and mentors to produce a moving portrait of an “inspiring young man who never took no for an answer, achieved a great deal of success, and set out to live life to the fullest.”
While no release date has been set for the film, a two-minute trailer posted on YouTube earlier this month has already received thousands of hits, and the response from those who have screened the film has been unabashedly positive.
“Everyone who has seen it has loved it,” said Matty’s mother, Allie, who is listed as an executive producer along with Matty’s father, Jerry. “People were sobbing as they watched it. [de Rezendes and his crew] did such a beautiful job.”
Allie said she “never had any intention” of turning her son’s life into a movie but was later convinced to go for it after taking all of her old VHS tapes to local video professional Paul Plotkin to have them converted into DVDs.
Plotkin, she said, took months to edit all of the tapes into five or six DVDs and urged her to contact a filmmaker.
“He poured his heart and soul into this [project],” she said. “And then he says to me, ‘You must make some sort of film about this. People must know about your son.’”
Plotkin decided to contact de Rezendes, an old filmmaker friend of his, and implored him to check out some video of “this kid” from Canton.
“[In the fall of 2011], Paul comes to my home, and from the very first image I saw of Matty, I knew I wanted to make this film,” recalled de Rezendes. “That image became the opening shot of Raising Matty Christian.”
Like Plotkin, de Rezendes found himself mesmerized by Matty’s ability to not only function, but thrive without prosthesis. And the more he learned about Matty’s story — from the swimming records to the friendships he forged, to his tragic death in January 2009 at age 25 — the more emotionally invested he became.
At the same time, de Rezendes said not knowing the subject personally allowed him to approach the film objectively and to craft a narrative that was honest and forthcoming.
“A lot of this comes down to Allie Christian,” he added. “Had she not shot all those hours of video, the film I think would have come out a little flat. Allie captured some candid moments that were just beautiful; the issue was just trying to trim them down. She really captured her raising of Matty and his struggles early in his life on camera really well.”
The film also delves into Matty’s struggles with alcohol and substance abuse and the circumstances surrounding his death — topics that required a lot of openness and trust on the part of the family, according to de Rezendes.
“And I think a lot has to be said for their courage,” he said, “because as tragic as it was to lose him, here I come into the picture almost three years after his death, and I naturally, not purposely, start to dredge up all of this stuff.”
Allie, for her part, hopes the film can be used as a tool to help others and possibly prevent future tragedies. She mentioned that Canton Police Chief Ken Berkowitz, who is interviewed in the documentary, has even talked about showing the film to students in the middle school as part of a broader discussion about substance abuse.
“That is like a gift,” said Allie, “if they can show this and use it as a tool for the kids — anything to help somebody save the life of a child.”
For now, de Rezendes said the plan is to shop the film around to film festivals and distributors in hopes that the “right person will see it.”
“I think this is something that can be shown in theaters,” he said, “although the more likely audience might be something like Netflix or places like HBO or PBS. We definitely want a high outlet for it.”
Allie is also aiming high and has a feeling that the movie is “going to go big.”
“It’s sad,” she acknowledged, “but it’s also funny and it’s really inspirational. It’s bittersweet, really.”
Allie said Matty’s father, Jerry, and his younger brother, Michael, were also prominently featured in the film and both are “thrilled” with the outcome.
In his own critique of the film, de Rezendes described Raising Matty Christian as “one of the best things [he has] done to date” while noting that the early response has been “very, very strong.”
Richard Propes of The Independent Critic also raved about the film in his recent review, giving it an A (3.5 stars) and calling it a “fully developed and lovingly realized portrait of one young man’s life and how it continues to inspire those around him.”
“Raising Matty Christian isn’t just Matty’s story,” writes Propes, “but it’s also the story of the family that raised him and the friends who loved him and the community that continues to embrace both his strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows.”
Both Allie and de Rezendes were also quick to praise the work of the film’s composer, critically acclaimed singer/songwriter and Massachusetts native Eric Barao.
“I watched it at least four times because I really wanted to nitpick it, but I didn’t cry,” said Allie. “But then I saw it with the music. Oh my God, within five minutes I was balling.”
Allie and Jerry both appear throughout the film, as does Michael and a host of relatives, close friends, coworkers, and neighbors — a total of 31 people in all.
Allie said her interview alone took at least three hours, and for the first 45 minutes she struggled to find the right words to describe her son.
“I just couldn’t wrap myself around his whole life,” she said, “but it was also comforting in the sense that it kind of brought him back to life.”
At the end of the day, Allie just wants the film to “touch people’s lives and make a difference.”
“I really want it to help people,” she said. “Having known Matthew, I know that he can make anyone be a better person. I just want to see it reach as many people as possible.”
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