The title character of The Teachings of Jon is a middle-aged North Carolina man with Down syndrome who has an IQ of 20, can’t speak and has a job that pulls in 27 cents a week. “But my film is not about Down syndrome at all,” says Jennifer Owensby, producer, director — and Jon’s younger sister.
She says the documentary is not really about Jon, either. “My brother can’t be the main character because my brother never changes. It’s my family and the audience as they’re watching who become the main character.”
The Teachings of Jon offers an entertaining short course on family values, albeit as embodied by a somewhat unorthodox family. American Public Television will distribute the 60-minute film in April.
Owensby had long nurtured a dream of making a film about the joyful consequences of her family’s decision to bring Jon back home from the nursing facility where he had spent his first seven years. During a nine-year stint in Hollywood as a personal assistant on some 25 films “of all different sizes and budgets” (Wyatt Earp, The Getaway and Free Willy 2 among others), Owensby tried to pitch a fiction film based on her family’s story.
Back home in North Carolina, she changed course after attending a documentary film event, now known as the Full Frame festival. The films, on the theme of people with disabilities, were mostly depressing, except for a few tales of disabled superstars’ heroic accomplishments. Moreover, they were not imaginatively shot, she says, as if the directors thought creativity would be inappropriate. They tended to lack positive main characters you’d want to keep watching, as successful movies do.
“And they certainly didn’t have a sense of humor,” says Owensby. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to make this a documentary because my family’s story is so different from how this is being portrayed.’”
Owensby isn’t angling for legislation or reforms in social services, but she does want her film to have an effect.
“I really think that it's people's perceptions that need to change,” she says. “And when enough people in society begin to see people like Jon as a valuable human being in his own right, with his own personality..., just like the rest of us, rather than avoiding or pitying him, then I believe we'll begin to see more films representing that broader perspective.”
What her 60-minute film does so unexpectedly and so well is to portray Jon as affectionate, lazy, messy, entertaining, imperious, but altogether a fun guy to hang with. It begins with vintage footage of Jon’s reunion with his family — his father, Dr. Norm Owensby, a psychiatrist; his mother, Lou, a psychotherapist; older siblings Charlton and Jennice; and Jennifer. More recent scenes depict Jon at work — in a vocational center, where he gets paid to pull threads off cones from a local mill but goofs off a lot — and at play — swimming, intently folding paper, performing yoga poses, or playing with the rolling pins he gets for Christmas (“Jon doesn’t do toys,” says Lou Owensby). At the family dinner table, Jon uses his personal sign language — which combines emphatic clapping, chest-pounding and pointing — to demand more folding paper, call for his Furby, or just say “I love you.”
A sequence called “The 39 Steps,” narrated by Jon’s proud papa, details Jon’s unvarying morning ritual: brushing teeth, bathing, getting shaved, dressing (blue classic Mickey Mouse T-shirt mandatory, pants optional) and breakfast (egg sandwich with mayo and ketchup, cut into pieces).
“As a first-time filmmaker, I was very blessed because my brother does the same thing every day and wears the same thing every day so I was able to get multiple takes of everything,” says Owensby.
In the film’s only downbeat section, Jon’s parents recount the heart-wrenching decision 44 years ago to place Jon in a nursing home a few days after his birth, a decision prompted by the icy reception of their own parents and the well-meaning advice of a doctor colleague who claimed that his parents’ choice to keep a Down syndrome brother at home had “ruined their lives.”
“When we had Jon, it was the societal norm to have them institutionalized,” says Lou Owensby. The death of Jon’s primary caregiver when the boy was 7 prompted the family to rethink their decision.
The saga of the making of The Teachings of Jon is as upbeat and inspirational as the film itself. Almost five years ago, just as Jon was about to turn 40, Owensby left Hollywood, moved into her parents’ basement and began filming. She hadn’t learned how to run a camera out West, but she discovered that she knew how to set up a shot. “And I learned that if you had friends who had different skills, you could ask them for favors — that some of those people would shoot for free if you had the guts to ask them.”
After a year, she entered her work-in-progress in a contest sponsored by the Association for Independent Video Filmmakers and won a 45-minute audience with CPB and PBS reps. “They basically gave me guidance about how to get a grant, which I’d never done before,” says Owensby. “They also said it’s normal for it to take four or five years from first shot to airing, but that kind of went in one ear and out the other.”
She submitted proposals to the usual suspects, among them ITVS, which rejected her repeatedly. “You submit a proposal and tape, and four independent anonymous readers give their feedback,” says Owensby. “What was so interesting was that there was no middle ground. Three people would say they loved it — it’s positive, upbeat, moving. And the other person would say it’s not appropriate for television. I later found out that is common for personal stories.”
Owensby eventually went back to CPB. “I was just asking for advice, but before I knew it Cheryl Head [v.p., educational programming and services] and Terry Bryant [v.p., media strategies] were saying they felt it was a strong, compelling piece, and they didn’t want it to go to any other outlet, and the next thing I knew they were giving me a grant.”
The grant came from the Diversity Fund, which CPB ran jointly with PBS. CPB was eager to fund the film, partly because it received so few proposals for projects about persons with disabilities. PBS passed, however, but APT stepped in.
“This a project that we believed in, and people here believed in, and we’re delighted that it’s coming on the air,” says Head.
Before moving forward, Head and Bryant sought feedback from Dalton Delan, chief programming officer at Washington’s WETA.
Delan watched it at home, where his wife and two sons — who normally make themselves scarce while Dad watches his bo-ring documentaries — were drawn into the TV room by his laughter. “They started by leaning over the couch, and by the end all three were sitting, all three said it was funny and touching and they liked it a lot — and we talked about it,” says Delan. “That cemented my reaction, which was that it was one of the only truly family-friendly and funny documentaries — while being dead serious — I’ve ever seen.”
Now Delan, whom Owensby describes as “her chief angel,” says he’s seen more versions of The Teachings of Jon than of any documentary he’s actually worked on.
While Delan bills himself as merely a “friend of the film and the filmmaker,” he was instrumental in scoring a presenting station — South Carolina ETV. “We took it on because it’s a jewel of a production. We should bless the independent producers who devote so much time to these jewels,”says Polly Kosko, v.p., national programming, at SCETV.
Owensby used $24,000 of her $176,000 CPB grant to have a handsome website designed by Michelle Halselle of Missing Pixel, who has created sites for Matters of Race, 5 Girls and other PBS programs. In addition to information about Jon and video clips of his family, the site includes links to resources about Down syndrome and other disability issues.
The first-time director says the website will help the film accomplish what she wanted to do from the start: “When I approached CPB, I said, ‘I want my film to give people permission to stare and to laugh.’ It’s not about information or the 21st chromosome or my brother’s monocular vision or any of those details about Down syndrome. It’s about creating a feeling connection for anyone with a disability — physical, mental, or anything — and to get around the fear all of us have.”
The Teachings of Jon is one of about 200 programs or series listed in Current's Pipeline06 survey that are planned for national broadcast in public TV's 2006-2007 and later seasons.
The producer's website with family photos and links to sites about Down syndrome and mental retardation.