Profiles In Courage

Excerpted from the Journal News in Lower Hudson Valley, NY – August 2007

By Kevin Canfield

It’s unlikely that any movie released this year will feature characters more remarkable than Kathy Conour and Diana Braun.

The subjects of a moving new documentary from director Alice Elliott, the unlikely cinematic heroes are waging a war for their lives – and the lives of many others.

“Body & Soul: Diana & Kathy” plays tomorrow and Thursday at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville. Elliott will be on hand for a question-and-answer session after both of the 5 p.m. screenings.

An engrossing 40 minutes, “Body & Soul” tells the story of Diana, who has cerebral palsy, and her friend and caregiver, Kathy, who has Down syndrome. The two have been a team for more than 35 years, but huge medical bills and difficulties posed by complicated Medicare procedures and standards have propelled the women into crisis.

Elliott said the women’s bravery – they traveled from their home in the Midwest to the nation’s capital to appeal for more generous funding for people with challenges such as theirs – is inspiring.

“I have all my facilities right now; some people like to say I’m a T.A.B. – I’m temporarily able-bodied. But I don’t go to Washington about things that I’m passionate about,” Elliott said. “And here are two women, it was a huge obstacle for them to go and participate and they went and did it.”

The film, which went into production in 2002, captures private moments that are alternately poignant and funny. Confronting everyday life with guts, the women make time to gently joke and tease – they call one another “ding-dong.”

“They’re just kind of blunt and straight-forward,” Elliott said. “What really appealed to me was their humor – that they were not only good subjects and had a great story, but they had a lot of humor. I always like that because I feel like people forget that that’s part of the human condition.”

In 2002, Elliott had recently finished “The Collector of Bedford Street,” a documentary that would be nominated for an Oscar, and wasn’t sure she was ready to take on another exhaustive project. But the more time she spent with Conour and Braun at their home in Illinois, the more she was convinced that she had another story.

“My films choose me, they’re stories that keep me awake at night, and that I can’t turn away from,” Elliott said.

If all goes well, the movie’s small theatrical opening will put it in line for Academy Award contention. The film has already played in Florida and Illinois, and will soon show elsewhere in New York and in California.

The film lands at the Burns in part through the friendship Elliott and Brian Ackerman, the center’s programming director, forged through several visits to the annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in North Carolina.

“She’s an incredibly committed filmmaker,” Ackerman said. “I think she’s somebody who is so clearly in it for all the right reasons.”

Simone Pero Audi, the film’s co-producer and the founder of Impact Productions of Bronxville, said she thinks the movie is significant because it deals with a subject that is of vital interest to many people.

“For me, this was a story about two extraordinarily strong women leaders who delved into an important public-policy issue and were not afraid to share their own life experiences to make positive impacts on the lives of others,” she said in an e-mail.

Elliott said the film has a couple of central themes.

First, she said, it urges the viewer to “get involved, be committed and go to your elected representatives and let them know what you want.”

Also, it encourages the audience to refrain from hasty assessments of others. As Elliott said, “Don’t judge people by what you think you know about them.”