With reference to the AFP story on Down Syndrome actors, readers may like to see the following column I wrote for The Hollywood Reporter, July 1-7 international edition. If readers want to contact Sergei Makarov I can put them in touch.
July 01, 2003
[The Hollywood Reporter, July 1-7
Down syndrome actor lauded in Russia
By Nick Holdsworth
SOCHI, Southern Russia -- Sergei Makarov, dressed in a splendid black tuxedo and bow tie, beamed with pride, waving the gold statuette aloft in a gesture of triumph when the film in which he stars, "Starukhi" (Old Women), won top honors at Russia's leading national film festival, Kinotavr.
The film had premiered at the festival, held in the first two weeks of June in the popular Black Sea resort town, and is actor-turned-director Gennady Sidorov's debut feature.
"Starukhi," which won Kinotavr's top prize, the Golden Rose, can claim another first: Makarov, 37, is the first actor with Down syndrome to ever star in a Russian feature film.
That's significant in a country where primitive Soviet-era prejudices toward disability are only very slowly giving way to compassion and understanding.
Makarov, one of seven actors with Down syndrome who appear at Moskovskovo Teatra Prostodushnikh (Moscow's Theater for Simple-Souls), founded four years ago by actor and director Igor Neupokoyev, plays a cowherder and the last man left in a semi-deserted provincial Russian village otherwise populated by foul-spoken old women.
But the film avoids the familiar depressing denouement of many Russian features and instead has an upbeat ending where the kindness of the human heart triumphs over enmity, fear and prejudice.
Makarov says he hopes his role in the film will combat misconceptions about those with Down syndrome.
Saima Makarova, the actor's mother, who helps interpret his speech (Makarov suffers from a speech impediment), says the film's success is not only important to her son but also to the ongoing efforts of the Moskovskovo theater to continue to break down stereotypes.
"The film was a great piece of luck, but the (Moscow) theater is a long-term project and we hope Sergei's role in the film can help attract support for the theater," she says.
Director Sidorov says Makarov's versatility and talents as an actor meant that "no casting was needed" for the role.
Makarov is characteristically modest and takes it all in stride, but his obvious joy when the Golden Rose was announced at Kinotavr's closing ceremony made clear the importance he attaches to the film.
One Western attendee at the festival agreed with those sentiments. A professor of Russian and an expert on Russian film, Vida Johnson of Tufts University said the film sends a powerful message.
"It's important that Makarov's character is not just a poster boy for Down syndrome, but is integrated into the plot of the film," said Johnson. "He acted the role very well, and that is important when people see the ability of someone with disabilities who acts not only normally but performs in a way superior to many actors without disabilities."
Roland Rust, director of the Cottbus Festival of East European Cinema, an annual event held in the former East German city that this year has a special focus on Russian film, says he has already invited the film to his festival.
"This is one of the most prominent examples of films that try to rediscover the 'Russian soul' -- away from the metropolis to an almost forgotten place," he says. "This is a part of a wave of such films, and the part of the Down syndrome character fits in to this context of something that should be respected, protected, not overlooked but recognized as an essential part of Russia."