How did you find out about the pageant?
I saw a profile of Abbey [Curran] in People Magazine when she was Miss Iowa. It was a two-page spread, and at the bottom of the second page, there was a picture of her at the pageant. I saw all these girls, smiling and beaming, and the hair went up on my arms. I thought, "There's a movie here. There's a story behind this much happiness." So I sought her out. I did some research, called the school and within 10 minutes they gave me her home address and phone number. It's surprisingly easy to get in touch with Miss Iowa.
And Abbey started the pageant before she even became Miss Iowa.
Most people are going to assume that she did it for a platform. But she didn't - she was a high school girl, losing and losing. Another girl with more severe cerebral palsy said, "I wish I could do pageants like you. My mom won't let me because she's afraid people will make fun of me." Abbey thought that was crazy. So she made a bet with her hairdresser - if she won, they'd start something for the girls. She went to her next pageant and she didn't win, but they said, "Let's do it anyway." She was just a local girl who wanted other girls to feel the same way. She wasn't Miss Iowa with a platform - she hadn't won anything yet.
Did you have any concerns about the kiddie pageant setting?
When people asked about my next film and I said, "It's a pageant for girls with disabilities," everybody cringed. Everybody thought: JonBenét in a wheel chair. And I did not want to do that. My interest was that picture of Abbey and getting chills - could I recreate that?
Does a response like that drive you to dispel preconceptions?
Absolutely. My first movie was dismissing preconceptions with drag queens. Everyone has a preconceived notion about pageants. Everyone comes to the table with notions about people with disabilities. Notions meaning fear. How do you talk to them, what do you say? When I flew to Iowa, I wanted to hear about their experiences and why they do it. The intentions from all the people involved were so pure, I felt like I hit the jackpot.
"Everybody gets something out of it. Kids come because it's fun ... They're cheered and celebrated."
Was there any hesitation amongst the parents about participating in the film?
They told me they didn't want the girls be exploited. In the same way we have preconceived notions about pageants and disabilities, they had it about TV people, the way that disabled people are portrayed in the media, and the way that pageants are portrayed in the media. They flipped my concerns right back at me.
Is Miss You Can Do It the only pageant of its kind?
There aren't many, but there are others. It's very inclusive. Anybody who wants to come can come, except Abbey doesn't allow kids with learning disabilities. People were starting to come because they were bad at math. She really wanted it for kids with real disabilities.
Who's more eager to participate, the kids or the parents?
Everybody gets something out of it. Kids come because it's fun. They have a pizza party and get their hair and makeup done. They're there. They're normal. They get to see other kids that look like them. For most of these kids, they're the only disabled kid in their school. For the parents, it's as much fun. One of the parents told me, "When you're a parent of child with special needs, there are very few opportunities to celebrate success with your children in a public way." They're cheered and celebrated. To see your kids get on stage and answer a question - that's scary for a non-disabled, 45-year-old adult, let alone a little kid.
Do the girls get competitive?
Everybody wants to win but there are no sore losers. I didn't see any tears. Everyone goes away with a trophy. Abbey wants it to be fun for the girls and for their parents to watch.
How did you decide who to focus on?
It was difficult because we couldn't include everyone. They're all so cute and sweet. We had to balance various disabilities, various cultures. We wanted the movie to represent the country, which is diverse, and diverse in disabilities, in color, in age. Teyanna, for example, was a very specific choice because she's so physically disabled. She breaks down assumptions: When you meet her, you think she's gone. But she's not; she's just trapped in this body. When I met her, I just lit up. Every single girl we picked, I just knew in the first minute.
Were the girls self-conscious about being filmed?
The girls didn't even notice us - they were having their own fun time. It was so much stimulation, between the pizza and Cinderella, the hairdressers, the escorts... On stage, they were looking at the audience, the judges and the lights. The parents were a wreck, but the kids were completely themselves.
You include footage of the hate Meg and Alina's parents experience.
I thought we had to include it because it's their reality. I don't want to say this is what life is always like for disabled people, but there are harsh realities. Just because you're disabled and you go to a pageant doesn't mean that you're free from it all. I thought it was important to show the ignorance and the way that they handled it as parents was so well done. It also helps puts into perspective how important a weekend like this was for them. It's one weekend where they don't have to worry at all.
This is your second documentary set at a pageant. What about the culture interests you?
The connection is that there's an underdog aspect that I really like - both stories just happened to take place at a pageant. My next one is about a horse that was rescued off of a glue truck hours from death and goes on to become a national champion. I go for inspiring stories, stuff that makes you cry out of happiness.
Docs Summer Series 2013
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