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  • Karla Uriarte

Troy Kotsur's documentary team reveals inspiration behind new documentary "To My Father"

The highly anticipated documentary, "To My Father," centered around the life of Academy Award-winning Deaf actor Troy Kotsur, is set to make its world premiere at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival. Directed and produced by a talented team, the film delves into the profound relationship between Troy and his father, highlighting their journey of resilience, fatherhood, and the power of unwavering support. In a recent interview with director Sean Schiavolin and executive producer John Papola, they shared experiences and insights into the making of this powerful documentary.

"To My Father" tells the courageous story of Troy Kotsur, and the influence of his father, Leonard Kotsur, on his journey to success. Throughout the interview, Schiavolin and Papola revealed the motivation behind telling this remarkable short series and the transformative power it holds for audiences. The director's focus on human dignity and cultural landscapes became evident as they passionately discussed their approach to capturing the essence of Troy's story. Through authentic storytelling techniques, they aimed to create a deep connection between viewers and the world of the deaf, emphasizing the challenges Troy faced in fitting into the hearing world.

The team, known for their YouTube show called "Dad Saves America," had the opportunity to connect with Troy Kotsur through their manager, Mark Finley, who also works with the talented actor. He spoke highly of his performance in a movie that had been recognized at Sundance and picked up by Apple, however, it was Troy's heartfelt acceptance speech at the Oscars that truly resonated with the creators. Troy delivered a moving soliloquy about his father, who was an exceptional signer until an accident left him paralyzed. This emotional moment ignited the team's interest in telling Troy's story.

Papola stated, "We pitched Troy to come on our show and then to sit for a documentary-style interview with the goal of figuring out how to bring that story to life as a film." The director, Sean Schiavolin, known for his poetic visual storytelling, was enthusiastic about the opportunity and took charge of directing the project.

Troy Kotsur played an essential role in the production, not only as the central figure but also in contributing his insights and elevating the project. The team recognized that the film would not have been possible without Troy's involvement, and they emphasized his importance in the storytelling process.

“He’s the center of it, but also bringing material together and elevating the project. I mean you know, there’s no thing here without Troy,” said director Schiavolin.

The interview further delved into the mission of the team and how it aligned with the documentary. The "Dad Saves America" channel, part of the nonprofit organization Emergent Order Foundation, is dedicated to telling heroic stories that embody classical American virtues. Their aim is to celebrate fatherhood, explore the challenges faced by fathers, and encourage them to play a healthy role in their families and communities.

Regarding the documentary's messages, the director expressed the desire to dig into what inspired Troy to dedicate his Oscar to his father. “He leaves it at that hole. Everybody's up in aw all over what? That was amazing, it was super emotional. Like, what is that? There's more to that story. What is that story?,” says Schiavolin. They wanted to explore the story of his father's dedication and support, which fueled Troy's belief in his own capabilities. The film aimed to convey the universal theme of a father's role in fostering independence and faith in their children's abilities.

The conversation also touched upon the significance of raising awareness and promoting inclusivity in the film industry, particularly for deaf filmmakers and audiences. The producer highlighted the importance of inclusive storytelling, where the specific experiences of individuals are merged with universal human truths. “We had other members of the team that had similar experiences and so it's been a very personal film filmmaking process for all of us. I think the way I certainly think about inclusive storytelling is very particular in that I think that our mission as storytellers is to take the particular experience of a story like this and find the universal human truth in it,” Papola explained. He emphasized that while the documentary celebrates the deaf community and brings visibility to their lives, it also tells a universal story that everyone can relate to and learn from.

The production process presented unique challenges for the team. With a deaf narrator and the use of ASL as a language, they had to rethink their usual techniques and find ways to make the film engaging for both Deaf and hearing audiences. The director mentioned the need to capture shots that showcased Troy's signing and facial expressions simultaneously, which required a different approach to editing and shot selection.

“This has to be equally as engaging for an ASL language audience as it is for a hearing audience and English right ? In this case, so we had to, like rethink the way that we have as a narrator, we use a narrator and the film, right, so Troy's our narrator in this film, and so we can't, we can't use these techniques where we establish a visual narrative over his narration while he's talking. Right? Because he's talking without words. He’s talking inaudibly,” Schiavolin mentioned. They also highlighted the use of virtual projection to enhance the visual storytelling and maintain the integrity of sign language.

Despite these challenges, the team found innovative solutions, such as using virtual projections to maintain visual dynamism while preserving the authenticity of Kotsur's signing. Through Troy's remarkable journey and his father at its core, "To My Father" is poised to captivate viewers and leave a lasting impact. The film is a celebration of fatherhood, the Deaf community, and the power of love and determination in overcoming adversity.

The world premiere of "To My Father" will take place at the Tribeca Film Festival on Thursday, June 8, at the AMC 19th St. at 8:15 p.m ET.

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