One day, director Lisa France received an email from the Alliance of Women Directors (AWD), about Gabriel Cordell; a paraplegic and recovering addict who was going to attempt to push himself on a standard wheelchair across the U.S. The posting detailed that Cordell was seeking a film crew to document the monumental, world record-breaking journey.
Having always been attracted to pioneering stories and personalities, France reached out to Cordell, initially joining the project as a keen observer, eager to see if Cordell could pull off this awe-inspiring expedition. In speaking to Kulture Hub, she noted,
“I love having an opportunity to shine the light on the impossible until it becomes possible. A pioneer creates a space for people to believe they can do anything.”
While Cordell’s goal was clear, he still needed a crew. Oh, and money.
France’s role as an enthusiastic spectator switched drastically into becoming a logistics manager and relentlessly trying to find ways to fund Cordell’s journey.
Through a Kickstarter campaign, the project managed to attain funds from 435 individual backers. In addition, the project received outside sponsorships from Kinecta Federal Credit Union, West Coast Chill (an energy drink company) and a spine doctor Alan Moelleken practicing in Santa Barbara, California.
With enough funds raised, Cordell could finally start his journey, or so, France thought.
The subsequent addition of Cordell’s nephew Christopher on the trip, who had just gotten out of rehab for heroin, was a plot twist that made France anticipate what was in store for them. With others following suit and volunteering to join Cordell’s journey, a unique squad assembled. France ran through the roster,
“A Guatemalan marine vet with PTSD, a homeless guy with Asperger’s, a recovering drug addict and cocaine fiend who lost everything, a gangbanger drug addict Palestinian Catholic, a career-smoker paraplegic with arthritis and recovering drug addict, and me, the lesbian. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?”
With an unimaginable sampling of individuals, who represent some of the most marginalized communities and identities in society, France knew that she was in for a wild ride. This motley crew, however, became her film crew and finally allowed the filming to commence.
With the other team members having no experience operating a camera and France not being a camera operator herself, admittedly, mistakes were made along the way.
As a result, there is a gritty and raw tone that rolls throughout the film and at the same time, is also punctuated by stunning shots that France was able to capture on their travels.
In speaking to Kulture Hub, France expressed that her primary focus was getting this group of people from point A to point B safely, emphasizing that filmmaking came to be secondary on this project.
Absent of any safety gear and with no members of the team having any experience caring for a paraplegic who had never undergone a physical task on a comparable scale, there was a lot to be concerned about.
Evidently, Cordell’s physical endurance was tested.
Cordell’s condition as a paraplegic leaves him unable to feel anything from the chest down. He has no balance. Therefore, any forward movement and traction in the wheelchair derive exclusively from Cordell using his arm strength. Yet, just as much as his physical strength was to be tested so was his psychological and emotional stamina.
Consequently, France encountered the common conflict most documentary filmmakers experience in production, the dilemma of filming your subject when they are in pain or suffering in some way. In our interview, France recounted,
“There were times where I was shooting and have tears streaming down my face and it was very hard to continue rolling. There was a time when Gabe’s shoulder started to have major problems when he was rolling and he was screaming out in pain. Just thinking of it now makes me sad. It was horrible, horrible to shoot that.”
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France did however set up boundaries between the documentary participants in pre-production and made it clear to every one of them that they didn’t have to answer every question. Plus, she would respect their requests if they didn’t want something filmed.
Nonetheless, France expressed to them,
“The more honest they could be with their feelings, with whatever the trip was bringing up for them, whatever they were learning along the way, however, they feel they were growing or not growing…If they shared it and were willing to talk about what was going on there would be a greater opportunity to help others…”
On its surface, Roll with Me is a story about a man who is trying to push his standard wheelchair across the U.S., overcoming 3100 miles, 70 thousand feet of elevation (to put that into perspective, that is Mt. Everest x2), in the timeline of 100 days. It is an incredibly admirable story and achievement, and yet, Roll With Me still manages to go beyond the inspiring Rocky-esque narrative.
Roll With Me evolves into a story about Gabe and Christopher’s relationship, but more specifically, the story of Gabe ultimately shepherding Christopher to sobriety. Gabe is no stranger to the struggles of addiction and credits the YMCA for having an instrumental role in his recovery.
Through the group’s journey across 13 U.S. states, there is a theme of unity and acceptance that runs throughout the film. France recounted to Kulture Hub that it was also a theme that translated across the group’s experience when filming the documentary.
She disclosed how during the group’s time on the road, police, and passers-by continually checked in on the group, as they would encounter the sight of Cordell daringly pushing himself along the highway. She relayed the generous hospitality that was provided to them by churches, local businesses and the several Native American tribes they met along the way.
Amidst the context of a highly divided political climate in the United States and across the world, France stressed the importance of a more hopeful and unifying message and revealed how these occurrences of generosity were one of the many things so moving and rewarding about the project.
Despite so much difference and variance in culture, ability (physical and mental), sexuality and gender between every one of the documentary participants, Roll With Me powerfully exhibits the unity between a group of people who have nothing in common, except their humanity.
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In terms of what she hopes audiences take out of the film, France said,
“I hope that when people watch the film they feel inspired take on something they may have thought was impossible for them.”
France also shared with Kulture Hub her advice to aspiring filmmakers and documentarians, maintaining the importance of being open to where the film will take you thematically. She asserted,
“Don’t get stuck on what you think it should it be. Be open to what it can be. Storytelling is storytelling. Be a good storyteller before you even shoot a frame of the documentary. If you have a really good story, you can shoot on polaroids if you have a good story to tell.”
Roll with Me is France’s first documentary. It is also one of the latest projects to be picked up by Ava DuVernay’s company, Array Releasing. The documentary is set for theatrical release in Nov. and will also premiere on Netflix Dec. 1st.
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Extra, extra! We’re proud to share the newest addition to ARRAY’s family, the inspiring documentary @rollwithmeusa directed by Lisa France! Set amidst 3,100 miles of open road and small towns, ROLL WITH ME chronicles recovering addict and paraplegic Gabriel Cordell’s world record-breaking journey to become the first person to roll an unmodified wheelchair across America. Coming to screens starting in November! #comingsoon #film #documentary #iamable #rollwithme #ajourneyacrossusa #directedbywomen