Film camp helps those with autism

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — Donna Nacarella said her son for years wanted to make a movie, but she never knew how to make it happen. One night while browsing the Internet around 4 a.m. she stumbled across information about the Joey Travolta Film Camp — it was like "divine intervention," she said.

The camp, in its fourth year in Pittsburgh, aims to help those with autism spectrum disorders like Nacarella'?s son, Eric, develop confidence and communication skills through acting and filmmaking. Started in 2006, the camp is held in four locations around the country throughout the summer. Its first year in Pittsburgh saw 12 participants; this year there are 50.

Actor, director and writer Joey Travolta, who is the brother of actor John Travolta, leads the camp, where participants ranging from 10 to 30 years old are divided into three groups, each tasked with developing and producing a film. Spending two weeks at Winchester Thurston's Upper School in Shadyside, campers make a movie from start to finish, learning concept development, script writing, costume design, location scouting, casting and acting.

These films are then incorporated into a performance — themed this year "Mr. Joey'?s Block," a spinoff of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" — and a documentary that will be shown at a red carpet event at Waterworks Cinemas in January.

Travolta, who has a degree in special education, said Tuesday that the camp gives participants a voice while teaching them to collaborate, look one another in the eye and be flexible. Young people with autism spectrum disorders are often averse to change, but hectic film schedules force them to adapt. Filmmakers and actors are "a band of vagabonds and misfits," Travolta said, making them accepting of people who may be perceived as different.

Tinkering with his Fantom G8 keyboard, Dima Harmon, 25, said the film his group is producing, called "Enzombia," started as a horror film but then shifted to a dark comedy, which made composing the score slightly challenging.

Harmon, who lives independently at the Waterfront and is participating in the camp for a third year, said he chose somber organs to accompany a funeral home scene and was determining how best to transition into the next shot, when zombies appear.

Michael Kurland, 23, of Mt. Lebanon starred in the film, which is about a zombie energy drink. To portray Jericho, a vengeful villain, Mr. Kurland said he channeled the energy of Benedict Cumberbatch and the poise of Sir Patrick Stewart, two British actors.

Standing in front of the camera was empowering, Kurland said, noting that he often reminds his peers that "we all have the power to shape the course of our lives." Quoting "Spider-Man," he added, "With great power, comes great responsibility."

Sitting outside during a break reading "Planet of the Apes" by Pierre Boulle, Elana Slesnick said the camp was "the perfect opportunity to meet people who are like you."

"You learn that you're not alone," said Slesnick, 20, of Squirrel Hill. "There are people with the same struggles and same interests."

Anticipating these connections, Nacarella of Hilltown, Bucks County, drove across the state so her 11-year-old son could attend the camp. Though he has difficulty in school, Eric is a huge film buff and can quote movies line-for-line, she said.

He was initially cast as a dead body in his group'?s film, "Operation R: Revenge of the Evil Rat," but said the idea scared him. So the group'?s teacher, Barry Pearl, 64, who played Doody in "Grease" with John Travolta, worked with Joey Travolta to rewrite the script the night before they started shooting, giving Eric a breathing, speaking role.

Eric has one line, which comes at the end of the apocalyptic film: "Dreams really do come true."

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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