Kids Learn Acceptance and Make Friends Through Music
Anxiety turned to amazement when a filmmaker focused on rehearsals for a musical starring students with cerebral palsy and able-bodied students, who discovered that understanding and friendship await “on the other side of the fence.”
Henry Nevison is an Emmy-nominated a documentary filmmaker with three decades of experience. His credits include shows on the Biography Channel and the History Channel. For his latest project, he set out to make a film documenting a musical theater partnership between Germantown Friends School and the HMS School for Children with Cerebral Palsy, both in Philadelphia, PA. He never dreamed that he’d become an emotional participant.
Nevison’s film, On the Other Side of the Fence, chronicles an annual project now in its 32nd year, wherein the two schools get together to put on a specially written musical. It follows students from each school as they come together to prep for their roles. The film premiered in late July with two showings, both of which sold out.
Nevison’s emotional involvement began when he filmed the first meeting between the students, and he experienced an unexpected sense of anxiety. “I felt awkward, uncomfortable,” he says. “I thought, ‘how are they going to communicate, much less form a relationship?'”
Andrea Green, a music therapist and the writer, director and composer for the musicals, answers that question. “When children are open or there is an opportunity for them to be with someone who is different in a supportive way, children become very accepting,” she says.
Green and Nevison met several years ago, and she suggestedthat he undertake a film project to document the process. He was captivated by the idea—so much so, in fact, that he began filming the next week. He was amazed as he watched the initial awkward interactions between the students become more easy and natural, with Germantown students helping HMS student partners by pushing wheelchairs, holding microphones, and engaging in more effective communication.
“You witness a transformation,” says the filmmaker. “They don’t need to be taught tolerance; they are experiencing it.”
About halfway through the project, when funding was running low, Nevison began a Kickstarter campaign which eventually raised $87,000 to complete the film. The documentary has gone beyond its red-carpet debut to an international showing in Estonia, where a 10-day conference on diversity and acceptance will premiere On the Other Side of the Fence to an overseas crowd. Green’s work, as well, will be featured—her musical, The Return of Halley’s Comet, will be a main attraction.
Plans are underway to air the documentary on public television stations all over the country. Here’s a glimpse of this heartwarming movie that celebrates inclusion, enlightenment, and acceptance—in grand musical style. You’re the critic today. How would you review this film?