I’m in the middle of making a documentary film about Aaron Westendorp. I’m saying that up front, because I’m sure that Aaron is starting to doubt that I’ll ever finish it. (Watch a 3-minute clip at the bottom of this page.)
I met Aaron about two years ago. Aaron’s parents, Krista and Doug, are part of a loosely organized weekly Happy Hour group that Karen and I hang out with. They’d told me a bit about their (now) 31 year old son — how he was quite a character, and how he had overcome a lot of stuff in his childhood — specifically some physical ailments and disabilities.
I was especially intrigued by the “quite a character” part. They told me he did some announcing and interviewing at a radio station (even though he doesn’t speak vocally), how he was smart, funny, sarcastic, fiercely independent, how he had a penchant for connecting with certain types of people, such as celebrities he admired, and political movers and shakers. They also told me he was very social justice-minded and identified with people who found themselves on the fringes of society for whatever reason. To top it off, he was a music freak — especially older and offbeat stuff — AND a percussionist himself. I decided I wanted to meet this guy and I asked them if they thought he might be interested in letting me make a documentary film about him. Krista advised me to give it a shot, and gave me his email address.
In my first email to Aaron, I was a little unsure how to describe why I wanted to make a film about him (without having met him) without it sounding like the only reason I was interested was because he has some disabilities. Then I realized that if I was honest with myself, that the disability angle WAS, in fact, a big part of why I was initially interested. This kid wasn’t just any funny, intelligent, thoughtful, caring, assertive, musical, smartass radio announcer — but he was all that without the ability to talk, most of the time using a wheelchair, and with limitations in the use of his hands and arms. But when you meet Aaron, you quickly realize that the physical limitations are noticeable at first, but they are far from the most important things about him.
Here’s Aaron’s response to my first note to him asking if he’d like to meet me and let me make a film about him, “I trust my mom has good judgement about these things, so as long as you don’t ask me to take off my clothes, we’re good.”
I literally LOL-ed, and knew immediately that we were going to get along.
I’ve recorded quite a bit of video with Aaron. He usually sets up the shoot — at an event or place that is important to him. He’s invited me to his apartment to meet his nurse, to several gigs when he’s played with the Johnny Holm Band, to the Minneapolis May Day parade that he’s in every year, to a St. Paul Saints baseball game, to his birthday party at his sisters’ house. One day he texted to invite me to stop in at a brew pub where he was DJ-ing. For me, the most fun one he set up was getting me backstage after a Prairie Home Companion show and interviewing his long-time friend Garrison Keillor and several of the people in the show.
I’ve also visited Aaron when he was hospitalized for some potentially serious stuff. He monitors his own health and lets people know when he’s having problems. His parents raised him to be independent and advocate for himself. He makes it clear to his Personal Care Assistants (PCAs) that they work for him — he calls the shots, and they are there to help with the relatively few things he’s not physically able to completely do by himself.
I’ll be finishing a rough cut of his film soon and hope to have the whole thing done later this spring. Aaron and I have had an agreement from the beginning that it will be a film that he can feel good about. He’s made it clear that he doesn’t want it to be a “feel sorry for the cripple” kind of thing. Nor does he want a teary-eyed “inspirational” piece. At first it seemed like a tricky line to walk, but the more I got to know him, the more I realized that Aaron just being Aaron is going to be story enough. But if if there’s not at least a little inspiration and maybe a tear or two in the story of Aaron and his family, it will be my fault as a filmmaker, because everyone who knows Aaron is both inspired and full of admiration for this wacky guy.
Yes, Aaron . . . there will be a film. And no, I won’t ask you to take your clothes off.
Here’s a 4:26 clip of Aaron and some of his friends and family that will give you a little idea of who he is. (This is an expanded and re-edited version of the video clip in the original posting.)