Camp at OU helps disabled shoot and star in film

by Rory Mccarty

Senior Reporter

Kids that are born with autism generally have a more difficult time socializing and fitting in groups. But Joey Travolta’s film camp, which is being organized by OUCARES, is hoping to get kids with autism involved and make new friends, as well as learning the process of making their own films.

For the past two weeks at Oakland University, Travolta has been running a film camp that’s designed for kids, mostly 10-18 years old, who have autism or similar mental disabilities, like Asperger syndrome. The kids work with Travolta’s film crew to write, direct and act in their own films.

Though he worked as a special education teacher before he was an actor and singer, Travolta began working in camps like this when he was asked to run one in California.

“Two parents with a child with autism contacted me and asked if I would do workshops for children with mental disabilities, and I said we’ll give it a try,” Travolta said.

Since then the number of camps has expanded greatly, so much that Travolta needed to travel back and forth between OU and another camp in Chicago last week.

OUCARES was the first camp to contact Travolta outside of California.

A typical day at film camp begins with a warm up where volunteers and campers get up and move to loosen up for the day ahead. A brightly sunlit room fills with the sound of loud pop music as the kids begin clapping and dancing around the room. Travolta also joins in, taking a couple of the shyer campers by the hand and leading them to the dance floor as Prince’s “1999” begins playing.

After the warm up has ended, the kids split off into three age groups and begin to work on their separate film projects. One of the projects is a spoof of “The Twilight Zone,” where a man gets sucked into his TV and wanders from channel to channel.

The kids spend their first week getting ready to shoot, by doing things like writing and casting, and the second week actually filming.

“They’re here to learn the process of filmmaking from start to finish — casting, props, acting, learning film terms — and day by day, they open up more, they become more integrated, and they make friends like they never have before,” said Spark Boemi, director of photography at the camp, while helping some of the campers scout for locations to shoot.

Boemi carries a camera around wherever the campers go both to create a documentary of the experience for families of the campers, and to get the kids used to being on camera.

Hannah Richey is one of the many campers at Travolta’s film camp. She decided to attend after her mother, Beckey Richey, suggested it to her. But even though it’s Hannah’s first time at a camp, she says it’s already become her favorite.

“Hannah’s going into the 6th grade, so this will help maybe give her some skills she can use,” Richey said.

With varying degrees of autism, some lower functioning kids won’t be able to do as much as others, but inclusion is a high priority at Travolta’s camp.

Every camper gets to take part in the films in some way, regardless whether they get to act on camera or hold the lights or simply use the clapboard slate at the beginning of each take.

So every camper has a hand in the filmmaking process.

“I like that this camp is including everyone, not just the more verbal, higher functioning kids,” Richey said.

In one scene for “The Twilight Zone” film, one of the campers is dressed as Steve Irwin for a nature show that the main character falls into. Another camper holds up a sheet of reflective material to bounce sunlight onto the actors. Another of the kids, co-directing with Travolta, yells, “Action!” to start the scene.  In between takes, Travolta works with his film crew and helps the campers get their lines or rewrite them if they work better differently.

Boemi said, “They might show an interest in the camera, so we’ll show them the camera, or they might want to do lighting, so I’ll put them on lights.”

The finished films will be shown at a red carpet premiere in November, hosted by Travolta.

“Filmmaking requires a lot of collaboration and teamwork, so that’s what’s so great about having them work together. It gives kids with autism a voice,” Travolta said.

Travolta doesn’t believe that he would be doing these film camps if he hadn’t been called by that first family with an autistic child.

“It was kind of like they found me,” he said, smiling.