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ALS documentary brings laughter, tears

By KBell
Dec. 1, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.

Purvi Patel, a physical therapist who is part of Team Hope in Houston, embraces Craig Fox before the debut of the documentary "Breadth of Hope" at the Leo J. Welder Center for the Performing Arts in Victoria.

By the time the lights turned on and final credits rolled, sniffles filled the auditorium.

The audience gave a standing ovation to Drew Stewart's documentary, "Breadth of Hope," and to its characters, Craig Fox, Bill Hassel and Carolyn Shimek.

The documentary, presented by the Advocate, chronicled the struggles and triumphs of three Victoria families living with ALS, a terminal neurological disorder.

"The story has so many complexities and so many characters," Stewart, 24, said. "I knew it was an opportunity to do something greater than I've ever done with film."

Stewart was an intern at the Advocate when he was asked to shoot video of the Fox family for a story. What was supposed to be a simple 2 ½-minute video turned into 1 ½ hours of footage.

"We knew it had to be expanded," Stewart said.

Stewart hooked up with Hassel and Shimek at an ALS support group and since October 2009, has been filming and editing the documentary.

The result was 45 hours of footage, turned into an 85-minute film.

"Some of his questions were kind of touchy," said Fox, who talks about losing the use of his arms in the film. "It was going to all eventually come true, and he's bringing it to the front. That was difficult."

Stewart said during filming, he and the families shared just as many laughs as tears.

"What I took from the experience is that human beings rarely get enough credit for being as resilient as they are."

Many audience members were friends and family of the film's subjects and said they've witnessed their hope firsthand.

"Any time I get up in the middle of the night to scratch my neck, I think of Craig," said Hulan Howell, who attends church with Fox. "It's a very demanding experience on their part. Every facet of life has to be altered."

Howell said he wanted to see the documentary to learn more about the disease and the daily struggles of those who have it.

The film did just that - exposing how the disease slowly immobilizes its victims, sprinkled with comments from medical professionals.

But for Stewart, the truly poignant moments were the everyday ones with the families, like watching Fox's son shave his father.

"To me, it was less the sweeping things and more the small things," Stewart said. "Those beautiful, quiet moments that they don't even realize."

Sitting in the lobby after the film, Hassel was approached by person after person, some with tears still in their eyes.

Calling him "Pastor Bill," they thanked him for his inspiration and joked about some of the former pastor's funny quips.

"I really got something out of watching and hearing the people in the audience," Hassel said. "I think they got it. The laughter and the tears - they got it."

ONLINE SPECIAL SECTION

The Victoria Advocate explores the power of hope through an ongoing print series called "A Father's Strength," as well as a feature film about three Victoria families stricken by ALS.

The yearlong print series, related photos and 90-minute film, "Breadth of Hope," are viewable at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com/als.

This special online section aims to capture forever the enduring lessons shared by the Victoria families who battle ALS, an incurable and terminal disease that slowly debilitates sufferers.

The film, "Breadth of Hope," is produced by former Advocate intern and filmmaker Drew Stewart, and is the first documentary of its kind for this newspaper.

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