Written by: Julia Siegel
The 5th annual Montclair Film Festival is finally here! Having a press badge to the town’s biggest event of the year is truly incredible. As a student, it’s one of the best opportunities I could ask for. My festival kicked off on Saturday, April 30th with a screening of the award-winning documentary Gleason.
For all you football fans, you may remember that the New Orleans Saints couldn’t play in the Superdome for a year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. You may also remember that on the opening drive of their first game back at home, the Atlanta Falcons were forced to punt from roughly their own 25 yard line. A lane opened up in the middle of the field after the snap, and one of the most magical moments in Saints history occurred as Steve Gleason charged ahead and dove in front of the punter to block the kick, which was returned for a Saints touchdown. Instantly a hero, the Superdome broke into hysteria to show their love for him.
Now fighting for his life, Steve has become another type of hero. In 2011, Steve was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), which came with a prognosis of 2-5 years to live Six weeks after finding out he was fighting for his life, Steve learned his wife Michel was pregnant with their first child. ALS attacks the body’s motor neurons, and eventually patients cannot talk, move, eat, or even breathe on their own. With a scary road ahead of him, Steve started a video journal for his unborn son with the goal of leaving memories of who his father was before ALS. Most of the documentary is these videos that Steve recorded, giving the audience a raw look into the life of an ALS patient.
The documentary spans from the day Steve is diagnosed with ALS until fall 2015. The candid look at his life opens up a beautiful dialogue about relationships. The main focus was on the relationship of a father and son, with Steve’s relationships with his father and son Rivers as the centerpiece. The film also looks at the changing dynamic between Steve and Michel as the disease progresses quickly. Michel turns into his caregiver, which is interesting to see how her new role plays out in its many forms.
I was surprised at how emotional the whole film was. I laughed during one scene and fought back tears the next. Everyone in the theater was sniffing and blowing their noses throughout the whole film. The emotional rollercoaster makes Gleason hit home in a gut-punching way. It was incredible and moving to see how Steve never lost his sense of humor during the whole journey. His sense of perseverance is incredible and plays out like a real-life version of The Theory of Everything, which was based on Dr. Stephen Hawking’s life with ALS. For anyone who has seen that incredible film, watching Steve’s progression showed how perfectly Eddie Redmayne portrayed Dr. Hawking.
Not only does Gleason show how ALS impacted Steve’s life, it also shows how he continues to fight against it. Steve started Team Gleason, a non-profit organization, after he was diagnosed. He puts a lot of time and effort into coming up with charity events and fundraisers to help supply equipment and trips to ALS patients. Steve’s motto is “No White Flags,” which he wants every ALS patient to embrace. The goal of the foundation is to help ALS patients keep living their lives instead of giving up. Team Gleason is now also pooling funds into research for a cure.
After the documentary concluded, there was a surprise Q&A session with Blair Casey, who is one of Steve’s caretakers and an executive with Team Gleason. Blair was in the film, and it was great to hear his perspective on his experiences with Steve and the whole Gleason family. Blair told the audience that the film is basically a love letter to Rivers, who Blair said keeps Steve going. He also discussed how Team Gleason is still going strong and completing its mission of helping as many ALS patients as possible.
Gleason was the best film I could have picked to start off my festival coverage. I learned so much about sheer determination and the will to live. Steve Gleason is an inspiration to millions and more people should know about his efforts. He is the true definition of a hero. Once a hero, always a hero. Gleason opens in theaters this July.