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Wilton resident and filmmaker Megan Smith-Harris’s latest documentary, The Buddy System, will be screened in Wilton Library’s Brubeck Room on Saturday, Oct. 14, at 7:30 p.m. as part of the library’s New Perspectives Documentary Film Series.
The Buddy System follows three families touched by autism who experience a remarkable change when a specially trained autism-assistance dog comes into their lives.
A version of the film was screened at the library last October, which Smith-Harris said was “very valuable” because she was able to receive feedback and make changes.
“We trimmed down a couple of minutes, rearranged a few shots, and we have added a completely original score, created by a very talented young musician — Brendan Berry — who is also a therapist and works directly with people on the autism spectrum,” she said.
“He created a score that not only beautifully supports the scenes and interviews in the film but also has a deeper resonance.”
The final version of the film, Smith-Harris said, is more “streamlined” and “polished.”
Smith-Harris began working on The Buddy System about three and a half years ago, following her last documentary, Trial by Fire.
“Our previous story, Trial by Fire, was about burn survivors. It was critically acclaimed, aired on PBS and around the world, but it was a very difficult subject and some people said they couldn’t watch it,” she said.
Her husband suggested her next subject be “more acceptable” and involve something like “kids and puppies,” said Smith-Harris, who remembered reading about a Connecticut woman named Patty Dobbs Gross who breeds and raises autism-assistance dogs through the nonprofit North Star Foundation.
“I cold-called her and gave her the whole spiel on who I am and what we do — make nonprofit documentaries,” said Smith-Harris.
After a long silence, Smith-Harris said, Gross’s response was, “I’ve been waiting for someone to make a documentary about our work for the past decade, and I would love to meet you and be a part of your project.”
“We drove up there that weekend with a handheld camcorder, met her, thought she was great, loved her mission and her story,” said Smith-Harris.
Through her work on the film, Smith-Harris said, she saw firsthand how dogs can help children with autism in “pragmatic and emotional ways.”
“Each child is different, and Patty works specifically with the family to find what the temperament of their families are — she calls it ‘temperamental fit,’” said Smith-Harris. “She tries to get a dog that fits in with the family.”
One of the children in the film, David, used to speak only in whispers and cartoon catchphrases, said Smith-Harris, but after meeting his assistance dog — a golden retriever named Buddy — he began using his full voice after learning the dog would respond to commands only if he could hear them.
David no longer speaks in whispers, said Smith-Harris, and has made huge social and emotional strides.
Smith-Harris said she hopes The Buddy System “engenders greater respect and compassion for people on the autism spectrum and their families” among general audiences.
She said she also hopes that people learn that “properly bred and trained service dogs can make a dramatic impact in the life of a child and their success.”
Most importantly, Smith-Harris said, she hopes her film shows people that “we need to make room for people with differences in this world. We need to be more open-minded and make room in classrooms, socially and in the workforce.”
Smith-Harris said autism diagnoses have been “increasing at an alarming rate for years.”
“It’s now one in 42 boys and one in 189 girls who are born on the autism spectrum. That’s one in 68 children,” she said.
“All these children grow up and they need to have a place in society.”
When children with autism turn 21, Smith-Harris said, “most state services go, ‘OK, that’s it. You’re on your own,’ and a lot of these people end up losing their social skills, losing their confidence and not being able to be productive members of society.
“I think everyone deserves a chance to be a productive member of society, and I think every family wants their child to be able to accomplish that,” she said, “so we need to make more room for people with differences in our society.”
The Buddy System premiered to sold-out crowds at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival in March and won best film at the AutFest in Orange, Calif. It was also shown at the Ridgefield Independent Film Festival and Global Peace Film Festival in Orlando.
Smith-Harris said she hopes to take the film to “many more places.”
The film will be shown at the Alexandria Film Festival in Virginia in November, said Smith-Harris, and “we’ve also been invited by a school superintendent in Pennsylvania, where we actually shot some of the footage, to do a special screening there.”
“The film is just gaining momentum, and our goal is to share the film with as many people as possible,” said Smith-Harris. “We’re also very interested in educational distribution — getting this film to teachers.”
Much of The Buddy System was financed through donations from Wilton residents and others in the Fairfield County area.
“We’re so grateful to the Wilton community and larger Fairfield County community for their support,” said Smith-Harris. “We’re still looking for support to further develop educational and community outreach initiatives. Twenty percent of every donation goes toward a fund to provide an assistance dog for a child in need.”
Among those attending the Oct. 14 screening, Smith-Harris said, will be an assistance dog, Gross, and her 30-year-old son, Dan, who was one of the first people in the world to receive an autism-assistance dog. A Q&A will follow the screening.
Registration is highly recommended: www.wiltonlibrary.org, 203-762-6334.
To learn more about the film, visit buddysystemfilm.org.