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True! Filmmaker Tom Ropelewski has finished his documentary “2e: Twice Exceptional,” which will have its world premiere at the Richmond International Film Festival, Richmond, Virginia, on February 28. Ropelewski, a media professional who is also the parent of a student at Bridges Academy in Studio City, California, followed members of the Class of 2011 at Bridges Academy as they prepared for life after high school. A reviewer says of the film: “’2e: Twice Exceptional’ is an honest, up-close look at what it’s like to be — or to be the parent or teacher of -- a young person who’s both gifted and coming to terms with a learning difference. Essential viewing for anyone interested in understanding where our next generation of game-changing outliers may be coming from.”
2e Newsletter asked Ropelewski to tell us about the origin and execution of the film.
2e Newsletter: What made you decide to do the documentary?
Tom Ropelewski: I had just finished my first documentary about my grandparents, “Child of Giants: My Journey with Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange,”which was starting to be shown at film festivals across the country, and I was looking for my next subject. This was early 2011.
At that time, our son, who is intellectually gifted and has ADHD, was in the ninth grade at Bridges Academy. Cynthia Novak, Director of Bridges’ Middle School at that time, and Susan Baum, an expert in 2e and an advisor to the school, approached me with the idea of interviewing some of the students in the Class of 2011 before they graduated. They thought this was a particularly interesting bunch of kids and might made good subjects for a documentary.
They were right. These kids were articulate, funny, and incredibly open about their challenges and issues. They also had a strong sense of who they were and were excited about heading off into the world.
I think one of the biggest challenges for any parent of a child who’s on a unique developmental path is that it’s impossible to anticipate where they’ll be on that path next year, let along next week. One of the reasons I made this film is that I thought it would be helpful to show parents that there could be light at the end of the tunnel.
2e Newsletter: How did you get the Bridges’ parents to buy into this?
Tom Ropelewski: I think the key to making a good documentary is creating trust between the subject and the filmmaker. At that point, I was already on the Board of Trustees of the school, so most of the parents knew me. And I had rented an empty office at the school where I set up my editing suite for the previous film; so I was on the campus a lot and many of the students knew me, too.
Some of the kids were interested in filmmaking and would stop by to ask questions. So when I approached parents about interviewing their students — and in some cases being interviewed themselves — I think they trusted my intentions. Of course, not everyone chose to participate, and I respected that. But even I was surprised by the level of openness and candor I got from those who did.
2e Newsletter: How long did the interview process take?
Tom Ropelewski: I interviewed most of the students and their parents during the spring and early summer of 2011. Then I shot some events at the school over the next two years, which I used to flesh out the story. Since this was a labor of love and not exactly my day job, I was only working on it between other projects; so the editing process wasn’t completed until recently.
2e Newsletter: Did you use a crew?
Tom Ropelewski: Yes, but it was very stripped down. When you’re conducting these kinds of personal interviews you don’t want a lot of people in the room. The crew members I used were close friends I’d worked with before, and they were very supportive and sensitive to what we were trying to do.
When it came time to score the film I approached Kyle Wittlin, who’s the music instructor at the school. He’s an incredibly talented professional composer; and since he’s worked with these kids, many of whom are also musicians, he understood them very well. He also immediate grasped the sort of quirky, eclectic soundtrack I was looking for and turned me on to a young singer/songwriter at the school named Charlie Hickey, an eighth-grader. He had written and performed a song called “Odds,” which blew me away, and which we use over the end credits in the film. It really sums up the 2e experience for me. It’s already being promoted on NPR and is available on iTunes. [Hear the song at http://charliehickey.bandcamp.com/track/odds -- Ed.]
2e Newsletter: What aspect of the film are you proudest of?
Tom Ropelewski: As a filmmaker, you have lots of options in the editing room regarding how you present someone and how you tell their story. I think what makes me proudest is when someone who’s in the film says that I portrayed them accurately. It’s also great when someone in the audience — often it’s a teacher or someone who had never heard the term 2e before -- tells me that the film has made them re-think how they look at these sorts of kids.
2e Newsletter: What did your son think about the project?
Tom Ropelewski: Since he didn’t have to appear in it, he was fine with me doing it.
2e Newsletter: What’s it like to be a parent member of the Bridges community?
Tom Ropelewski: Both my wife and I are extremely grateful to be part of it. Before we found Bridges, we had never heard the term 2e. Our son was reading by the age of two, which we thought was pretty cool, until our pediatrician warned us that it might be an indicator of challenges ahead. Sure enough, when he was in first grade at his first school in Los Angeles, he’d walk out of class and tell the teacher he was going to the library and that he’d come back when they were teaching something he didn’t already know. Personally, he was fine with this arrangement; but it drove his teachers and the administration crazy. They would tell him to sit back down and review. He’d tell me, “Dad, how can I review an, at, and and?” We knew he had a point. Still, it hurt when we’d be called into meetings at the school and they’d tell us, “Yes, he’s probably the brightest kid in his class; but maybe he’d be a better fit someplace else.”
When our son finally entered Bridges in the seventh grade, we felt like we’d found a place that understood him and could appreciate his strengths as well as work with his issues. We were incredibly relieved, and found ourselves in a community of parents who seemed equally relieved. It just seemed like Bridges was doing so many things right.
2e Newsletter: Do you have your next project lined up?
Tom Ropelewski: I’m considering a few different things. I’ve been interviewing every Bridges graduating class since 2011, so there might be a companion piece to this film. Many of these kids are pretty extraordinary. I’m also planning to interview the kids from this film in another few years to see what they’re up to, like Michael Apted did with his BBC series Seven Up. I’d love this film to be the first installment in what could become the Seven Up for the 2e community. I’m certainly excited to see what all these kids are going to do next.
To watch the official trailer, to see information on upcoming events and screenings, or to inquire about scheduling a screening, visit the film’s official website at http://2emovie.com.