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One of the Most Surprising and Compelling Financial Crisis Docs Wasn't at Sundance, SXSW or Tribeca

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire May 29, 2013 at 11:05AM

The most complicated examination of the financial crisis and contemporary capitalism this year wasn't to be found at Sundance, SXSW or Tribeca. "A Whole Lott More" premiered a few weeks ago at Toronto's Hot Docs, where it placed third in the festival's Audience Award poll.
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Victor Buhler "A Whole Lott More"

The most complicated examination of the financial crisis and contemporary capitalism this year wasn't to be found at Sundance, SXSW or Tribeca. "A Whole Lott More" premiered a few weeks ago at Toronto's Hot Docs, where it placed third in the festival's Audience Award poll.

While it doesn't rehearse the usual indictments of offshore bank accounts, predatory lending, insider trading and the like, "A Whole Lott More" is an incredibly complicated look at the financial crisis told through Lott Industries in Toledo, Ohio. Over the years, Lott Industries developed as part of its operation a program that employed people with developmental and intellectual disabilities to work manufacturing and sending out small car parts. With that, comes confidence and class consciousness; the workers are represented on the plant's labor board.

In this story, which refreshingly spends much of its time with the plant's workers, there are no villains. There are, instead, a series of difficult decisions that must be made when the program loses its contracts when the US auto industry is dismantled.

The film's director Victor Buhler ("Rikers High") spoke with Indiewire after the festival about what allowed the film to resonate with the audiences it was able to reach.

How was the World Premiere experience for you at Hot Docs?

Hot Docs was amazing.  The last night was incredible, the main characters in the film were there.

How did you come to the story of Lott Industries, and how did you know it was worthy of a film?

I was in a car accident in India, and I ended up being on crutches for a couple of years.  While it's not the same as having a permanent disability.  i was shocked at how far removed people with disabilities are, especially people with developmental disabilities are.  I realized that something had to be done.  I read this story in the Wall Street Journal about Lott Industries.  A very successful sanctuary for people with developmental disabilities who wanted to work all day.  I was in a position to look for a story about I spoke to Joan Brown in the film.  A week later, I was in a wheelchair, shooting on the floor of Lott Industries.

What surprised you about the developments at the plant as you were documenting them?

I was expecting a different outcome.  I was expecting a new model to emerge from that situation.  That's what got me excited.  They say never waste a good crisis.  Lott had a crisis to deal with, and I was expecting new opportunities to come from that.  Not to say that that still might not happen.  The film tracks something different.  I think what the film shows is how hard it is in general for people with developmental disabilities.  But also how hard it is for the people who care about people with disabilities; the mix of business and social services is a difficult one to get right.

Victor Buhler Wanda, the enterprising labor leader, in "A Whole Lott More"

How did you change in making this film?

I come from a perspective that certain people deserve help.  They need help.  It's society's responsibility to help people who can't help themselves.  I came away with a different perspective on this population.  We really need a different philosophy.  That philosophy needs to mix business and social service.  I think that's a metaphor for all of America and where it needs to get to.  I think often America slants too much to the business side.  I think often social service organizations need to be more mindful of business.  Truthfully, if you're not self-sustainable, you need to be.  Because we live in a world where sustainability is key.  That's what I learned from that.  I didn't quite see the equation as clearly as before.  You see this in healthcare too, the desire to make money.

What does everyone who was involved with the film think about you documenting their lives?

Well it's still panning out.  It's still in the process; not everyone has seen the film.  It's exciting to get the film out there.  In terms of the world of developmental disabilities -- they're so seldom heard or recognized or seen in the context of working people.   They relish the chance.  They're very excited to be in a film, representing themselves the way they are: wanting a job, love, a place to live, independence.  I've got a lot of great support throughout the film.  It's why -- it's a very unusual film.  It's a tough subject to approach.  I think once you get people to watch the film, they'll be moved by it.  Getting people to watch the film is a doubly interesting challenge [when choosing films, people think they've seen all they need to see with respect to workers and people with disabilities].  So far, the Hot Docs people engaged with the film.  It took three and a half years.  There's time when you struggle along and you raise the money necessary to see it.  It's incredible -- that's why you kill yourself to make documentaries are moments like that.

What do you think of how everyone is responding to the film?

You live in the world of the film that you make.  You know it so well.  You emerge, and your expectations are a mix of excitement and fear.  People responded to the film with no real regards to disability, the characters as people.  There was some political conversations about disability -- How did it feel?  What was a character thinking?  You need to kind of sit with and let the characters get into you.  Catch your attention.  You get to the point of the film with Wanda at the graveyard, TJ with his sports, Kevin with his brother.  It becomes about life in America.  To get that kind of response was surprising and validating to me.

This is an incredibly thoughtful film.  The questions it asks and the answers supplied aren't easy.  They're not straightforward.  It's really impressive what you've done.

I think mindfulness is the key quality of being a documentarian.  I think there's no bad guy in the film.  I don't agree with every decision that everyone made in the film.  There's something admirable about that, how to tell a story and respective everyone along the way.  I think it's a very respectful film.  Of course, being mindful of the world of disabilities is very important, too.  I tried to see the film as a film about people with disabilities, but a film about.  I wanted to get out of that -- where you feel sorry for them.  I hope people don't have that sort of pity -- that's not how they see themselves at all.  That's not how the film portrays them.  Mindfulness at a number of levels is important.  There's more political filmmakers than I am.  I believe that everybody's point of view deserves respect -- in the vast majority of cases, people's views are valid.  I may not agree with them, but they're valid.

This article is related to: Documentary, Hot Docs, Interviews, Interviews