Reverend Hazan Daniel Benlolo was ahead of the curve. In 2002, he founded the renowned Tamir Choir in Ottawa, which is composed of adults with developmental and physical 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 to raise awareness and garner attention for his new, Montreal based music project, the Shira Choir. He’s been keenly aware of the desperate need for outreach from special needs adults who are regularly left out of the structured confines of school once they’ve reached aged 21. Benlolo routinely hears from their struggling parents and helps their adult children find their place in the world.
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. With unparalleled access to a selection of new choir members and their families, the documentary explores the universal language of music and how it works to empower and transform lives. We follow them as they prepare for weekly rehearsals and upcoming concerts. The breakthroughs, trials and tribulations become clearly evident in all the participants and Benlolo too. of
From Benlolo and his wife Muriel making dozens of sandwiches and renting a bus to transport choir members, to parents helping their children learn their lyrics, Just as I am also celebrates the front-line work of those in service, making life better for those that we generally ignore.
Cantor Benlolo also remains in regular contact with his old choir and plans to foster regular contact between the two by bringing Neshama members to Montreal for joint programs. As a result, the film will also have the opportunity to document and celebrate special needs adults mentoring each other through music, a narrative rarely seen on camera, culminating in a celebratory outdoor concert in late summer of 2021.
Just as I am is a testimony to music as one of the languages of human experience and a way of dispelling stereotypes, removing the common discomfort people have towards the disabled. Music can change attitudes and forge extraordinary connections and Just as I am highlights choirmaster Benlolo and his unique and charismatic vision for enabling members with physical or intellectual challenges to fully participate in society and inspire both their families and the audiences they sing to. Ultimately, People with special needs over 21 years of age require a sense of belonging, with opportunities to maximize their strengths in a community; the film explores this omnipresent theme.
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 underappreciated among us.