Filmmaking | Interviews

A Different Way to Learn

1 Oct , 2000  

Written by Lorre Fritchy | Posted by:

Award-winning documentarian Joshua Seftel talks about making 'Ennis' Gift: A Film About Learning Differences.'

"Ennis’ Gift: A Film About Learning Differences" is the latest effort by award-winning documentarian Joshua Seftel. Having had reading troubles himself as a child, Seftel recalls learning most effectively by watching films and library videos. Years later, his belief that everyone has his/her own way of learning has combined with the challenges of his youth to deliver an honest, stylistic, and hopeful documentary about learning and its many forms.

LF: You’ve had a lot of success in this genre. Do you plan on sticking with documentaries over, say, features?

Seftel: I will keep my hand in documentary filmmaking for a while, but I am exploring making a short dramatic film. I’m taking a step towards directing ads and commercials. "Ennis’ Gift" has a stylized look which kind of awakened something in me in terms of [the fact that] I love shooting in film, storyboarding, and planning every shot — making it as rich and beautiful as it can be. This is relevant when it comes to commercial and music video world.

LF: Any documentaries come to mind when you think of others to recommend to filmmakers?

Seftel: In terms of visuals, anything by Errol Morris from "The Thin Blue Line" and after. No one’s doing what he’s doing in documentary in terms of making it look the way he has them look. One particular film I always go back to as far as one of the great documentaries is "The Times of Harvey Milk" by Robert Epstein. In terms of storytelling and power, it’s just great. The way that film uses music with archival footage is incredible. There are a handful of films like that I look at over and over again, to sort of use them as guides when I get lost.

LF: What do you advise first-timers like me to do for learning and improvement in filmmaking?

Seftel: It’s all about watching good films and trying to learn from someone who’s good. Get near someone who you admire and who does great work. That’s what I did and it helped me. I sort of did trial-by-fire and made my own film really early. That was quite an education for me, difficult but also great. I’m glad it’s over, but I’m glad I did it!

LF: You’re very driven and accomplished in this industry and that’s inspiring to those of us who are just starting at your age now. I’m wondering who inspired you?

Seftel: When I finished college I worked for David Sutherland ["The Farmer’s Wife"]. He was my mentor. When I made my first film he and his wife Nancy held my hand and helped me a lot. He made me understand what it is to be a filmmaker; they taught me about having high standards, being a perfectionist, and being obsessive in a good way about your work. You definitely have to be obsessive to get a film done and to do it right.

LF: When you’re interviewing people about something as sensitive and personal as their learning difference, what is your technique as a documentarian to get them to open up to you?

Seftel: A lot of credit goes to Tom Miller (co-producer) for that. He was a social worker and has a way with people that makes them feel really at ease and comfortable. But overall we tried to really prepare; I usually talk to the people I interview often beforehand. Many times we’ll decide what we want them to say and when the interview happens we try to bring them back to those places. That worked well, people were able to recapture the feeling of the first interviews and sometimes go to new places. Pre-interview is key because it gives you that direction.

LF: If this was a two-minute news blurb there would have been some huge graphic over the interviews saying, "Lindsay Wagner, Dyslexic!!!!", especially with celebrities in the closet about a learning difference. You had them speak without ever writing it on screen or having them name what their specific challenge was. I thought that was an excellent creative choice because it made it less about the "difference" and more about the human impact.

Seftel: One of the goals was to avoid labels. Right away I decided it was important that people speak for themselves, so we decided not to have a narrator. Everyone would tell their own story in their own words. People were really talking about their lives; this was an issue important to everyone in the film. It’s an issue that shaped them and made them who they are. They understood the importance of their words and that the film is going to reach lots of children and adults.

LF: I read that you had a learning difference as well and I was wondering how that factored into production.

Seftel: I believe strongly that my learning difference has been a big part of my life and my learning difference is probably a big reason why I’m a filmmaker. I had trouble reading and as a result I was drawn to film. That’s how I learned. I remember going to the public library as a middle school and high school student and walking off with a stack of documentary films about things I wanted to learn about. I couldn’t really read that well, but was starving for information. Film is the way that I took things in visually and I think watching all those films and later in college getting into filmmaking was in largely due to the fact that I struggled with reading.

LF: If someone watches this who has a learning difference that perhaps has not been discovered, and they identify with what they’re seeing, what do you hope their reaction will be? What should they take away from this film?

Seftel: Ennis Cosby had a very positive outlook and approach to learning differences and he believed so strongly that people can learn, they just need to be shown how. The message of this film is a message of hope. I want people to realize that there are ways to get help and there are ways to learn and not give up.

Ennis’ Gift has its Boston PREMIERE October 12, 2000 at MFA – 8pm – Both Russell Cosby (Ennis’ uncle and a subject in the film) and Don Winkler (also featured in the film) will be in attendance.

Also, read a review of "Ennis’ Gift" in this month’s issue of

Ennis' Gift has its Boston PREMIERE October 12, 2000 at MFA - 8pm - Both Russell Cosby (Ennis' uncle and a subject in the film) and Don Winkler (also featured in the film) will be in attendance. Also, read a review of 'Ennis' Gift' in this month's issue of