Cantor-Choirmaster Daniel Benlolo was ahead of the curve. In 2002, he founded the renowned Tamir Choir in Ottawa, which is composed of adults with developmental disabilities. Benlolo has always been a firm believer in the power of music and singing to bring out the potential of people with disabilities. Under his direction, these extraordinary choirs learned an eclectic repertoire of liturgical songs, as well as Broadway and pop hits, and performed at crowded synagogues, churches, hospitals, and nursing homes, on Parliament Hill and at citywide events. It also toured Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Florida, Morocco and Israel. His choirs inspired audiences and raised awareness for those who are excluded and marginalized. But in 2017 Benlolo suddenly returned to Montréal to be closer to his family. The hardest part about leaving Ottawa was departing the choir…Just as I am begins with Benlolo’s attempts at fundraising and drawing attention for his new, Montreal, music project the Shira Choir. He’s been keenly aware of the desperate need for outreach for special needs adults who are regularly left out of the structured confines of school once they’ve reached aged 21. Benlolo like the struggling parents he hears from helps their children (now adults) find their place in the world. Being in Montreal does not change that. As a result the film details an intimate and collective profile of the courageous, special needs adults willing to join and help shape this new musical group. Using intimate snapshots and slice of life footage of select, new choir members and their families as they prepare for weekly rehearsals and upcoming concerts, the documentary explores the universal language of music and how it works to empower and transform the lives of Benlolo, choir participants and their families.
Just as I am also documents Benlolo’s attempts to recreate his choir virtually while members remain mostly quarantined at home. Using intimate videophone and zoom snapshots and slice of life footage from Benlolo, choir members and their families, the documentary also explores Danny’s attempt at creating a regular virtual sing-along among all the choir members in order to keep them empowered and engaged, and keep their small musical family together. Members of the choir describe their struggles and loneliness, and we share their joy when they are able to connect virtually to their friends.
Just as I Am strives throughout to break down barriers imposed by the pandemic, but also break barriers that exist in how we perceive the disabled and spotlight the lack of outreach services required to help them as adults. This is the time they need us most. With great heart, it’s a musical testimony to togetherness, dispelling stereotypes and raising up the depreciated among us.