Director Evan Beloff’s new documentary highlights the collaborative vocal power of the Shira choir, revealing both the pain and triumph that the team has experienced during such an isolating time
Montreal filmmaker and Concordia alumni Evan Beloff’s new documentary Just As I Am details the formation of Montreal’s Shira Choir, a talented group of singers with special needs. Set to the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Just As I Am presents viewers with a much-needed escape from the gloom of the past 18 months as it follows choirmaster Daniel Benlolo and choir members navigate barriers caused by the pandemic, while simultaneously shining a light on the absence of resources for those with special needs.
“[This was] definitely the most challenging film I’ve ever made, from both a personal and professional artistic POV,” explained Beloff. “It was initially a film exploring inclusion, the power of music, and a choirmaster who acts as the emotional glue of his special needs choir. But very early on, when the pandemic hit […] I was forced to make creative and technical decisions that would impact the narrative and visual aesthetic of the film.”
The documentary highlights the collaborative vocal power of the choir, revealing both the pain and triumph that the team has experienced during such an isolating time. “We’re all struggling with the same issues,” said Beloff. “Adults with special needs are no different than the rest of us. Inclusion is essential for us to become a compassionate society.” Despite the past 18 months being nothing short of a nightmare for most, the team has learned that there’s still a light at the end of the tunnel. “The pandemic has created the opportunity for us to light the darkness,” added Beloff.
In the film, the choir members can be seen practicing virtually in the early stages of the pandemic. As the year progresses, the choir is able to meet in person with safety measures set in place. It is apparent that the team is composed of a tight-knit group of individuals, each of them playing an equally important role in one another’s lives. While some technological issues arise during a few of the virtual practices, choirmaster Benlolo and the team persevere, unwilling to succumb to the virtual barriers that the pandemic has imposed.
While Just As I Am showcases each member’s passion for song, it is about so much more than just music. “I believe it’s a sweet film, a film that celebrates life even in the midst of all the sickness and death which we’ve experienced collectively over the last 18 months,” said Beloff. “The Shira Choir is a marvelous group of adults with special needs who have a tremendous amount to teach us about simplicity, kindness, directness, and enjoyment in each moment.”
For more information on the Shira Choir, please visit their website. Just As I Am can be viewed through CBC Gem.
Photograph courtesy of Keith Pun