Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

Calum Henderson: Day in the life of adults with intellectual disabilities

Amy St is two blocks past the KFC, on the left as you drive north up State Highway 25 through Thames.

The short, nondescript road now lends its name to a new documentary web series (amystreet.net) released this week: a series of eight vignettes between five and nine minutes long, each about a different one of its inhabitants.

They call themselves Life Stylers. There are around 60 in total, residents of the Supported Life Style Hauraki Trust, a community-based assisted living programme for adults with intellectual disabilities. The Life Stylers live in the trust's restored miners' cottages - some by themselves, some with others - on or near Amy St.

Fashion designer Jessica from Amy Street.
Fashion designer Jessica from Amy Street.

It is a "community within a community" that offers full support but also allows a level of independence.

Filmmakers Kirsty Griffin and Viv Kernick first visited Amy St in their 2014 Loading Docs film Wayne, a wonderful micro-portrait of a guy getting along in life with limited communication skills. The film allowed Wayne to speak for himself, focusing on his character instead of his disability. It was moving and funny, sensitive but never patronising. It got them funding from New Zealand on Air to make eight more like it.

But although the resulting short films that make up Amy Street all share the same generous spirit of the original, each one is as different as the personality of its subject.

Take the sweet and funny portrait of Celeste, who is possibly New Zealand's most dedicated Shortland Street fan. She takes careful notes of every episode, keeping them in a heaving folder along with a biography of every character who has ever set foot in Ferndale. "Huia Samuels, she died in a car crash; TK Samuels, he's hot."

Take the sweet and funny portrait of Celeste, who is possibly New Zealand's most dedicated Shortland Street fan.
Take the sweet and funny portrait of Celeste, who is possibly New Zealand's most dedicated Shortland Street fan.

Celeste lands a background role in the upcoming Sunday Theatre biopic of Jean Batten, and on set she spies Ferndale hospitality icon Murray Cooper. "I heard about his wife," she whispers to the camera about Nurse Wendy. "Got killed." She gets him to sign his autograph and later, showing it to her friends, pays him the ultimate compliment: "He's not bad for a bloke," she laughs.

In contrast there is Brandon, who is deaf and autistic. His film leads us wordlessly through a day in his life: from a morning cup of tea and walk along the waterfront, to making his bed, massage therapy, to dinner and bed. It is a simple but profoundly beautiful piece of filmmaking. All the films are good, but this one is the series' masterpiece.

Individually the films stand as heartwarming and often deeply poignant testaments to kindness, patience and compassion; together they form a compelling case study for assisted living communities like the Supported Life Style Hauraki Trust.

Simon is another non-verbal resident of Amy St, but woven through his film is an honest, hopeful, sometimes heartbreaking interview with his mum. Simon looks in his 40s or 50s. His mum says: "I can still remember what I was wearing the day I took him to the paediatrician."

Simon defied the doctor's prediction that he might never be able to move for himself. He is now a busy member of the community, working on a farm run by the trust. After work he is a jigsaw puzzle fiend, and enjoys going for a beer down at the Workingmen's Club.

"He gets up in the morning, has breakfast, gets his work clothes on and goes to work," says his mum, "and life has a measure and a purpose. That's what I really wanted for him."

Simon is another non-verbal resident of Amy Street, but woven through his film is an honest, hopeful, sometimes heartbreaking interview with his mum.
Simon is another non-verbal resident of Amy Street, but woven through his film is an honest, hopeful, sometimes heartbreaking interview with his mum.

All the Life Stylers on Amy Street have their own measure and purpose, from newlyweds Topsy and Dave to songwriter Moyzee and fashion designer Jessica, to indefatigable speed walker Jonathan, in training to represent Thames Valley in the Special Olympics. Jonathan's coach Paul, the kaumatua of Amy St, was the trust's first client when it was established in 1994.

They are short documentaries - you can watch the whole series in an hour - but they are the kind that stay with you a long time.

- NZ Herald

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Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

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