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The Martha's Vineyard Times

The Martha's Vineyard Times is a weekly publication.
July 14 - July 20, 2005 Edition
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Film: A film of love and courage
July 14, 2005



Dan Aronie faces life head-on with a smile. Photo by Liz Witham
Vineyard Haven’s Dan Aronie, 33, has deepest dark eyes and long, lean limbs like his parents. But unlike Chilmark writer Nancy Aronie and inventor Joel Aronie (zerotoys.com), he’s confined to a wheelchair with Multiple Sclerosis.

You need to listen carefully to what he says or you may miss one of his witty wisecracks. Don’t be afraid of him. And forget about pity. This wise, resilient, deeply feeling man is a survivor despite his disease-ravaged body.

His story, “A Certain Kind of Beauty,” has been recorded by Aquinnah documentary filmmaker Liz Witham and Dan’s mother Nancy. It premieres Thursday, July 21, at 7 p.m. in the Martha’s Vineyard Center for the Performing Arts. Emcee for the evening is comedian Marty Nadler, and director Harold Ramis (“Analyze That”) will introduce Dan for questions.

Aronie was living in Denver when symptoms of MS, an auto-immune disease of the central nervous system appeared. At 22, he looked like a handsome version of Bob Dylan, worked as a motorcycle mechanic and played a lot of pool.

His deterioration began with a tremor in one hand and numbness in the other. Eventually, he lost the ability to walk. As the film graphically demonstrates, he has never lost the capacity to think or feel and keep living.

He has railed at and rejected God, considered suicide, endured a lot of pain and taken his life’s lot with humor. He swears a lot. Women let their defenses down just by being with him, his mother says.

This man dines frequently with his parents and friends at his brother Josh’s Oak Bluffs restaurants, Park Corner Bistro and the newer Sharkey’s Cantina. He lives in a Vineyard Haven house his father bought him and shares it with a housemate named Jules. Friends and supporters are attracted to him like flies to honey.

Family friend and Somerville resident Jerry Storrow called up eight years ago to announce he’d inherited a little bit of money and asked what he could do to help.

“I said ‘cashmere,’” replied Nancy, clearly the inspiration for her son’s sense of humor. “How do you keep your heart open in hell?” Nancy asks. Then she shows the way.

“Dan always wanted to be an actor,” she says, “So I asked him, “How’d you like to make a movie and crack this f… disease?”

She got Storrow to finance purchase of a camcorder and help her make a film about Dan. Already an experienced videographer who had worked at Boston’s WGBH, Storrow made a natural fit as a filming supervisor.

Seventy-five hours of footage later, Liz Witham, a product of Stanford School of Documentary Film and Video Production and her partner Ken Wentworth of Film-Truth Productions, signed on. As the daughter of singer Kate Taylor, Witham grew up literally looking up at the statuesque Aronies, friends of her mother’s. Witham’s father sent her clips of Nancy’s stories when she was away at school.

“I always admired her writing and her effervescence,” Witham says. Witham had just finished her Stanford M.A. when Nancy told her, “I have all these tapes,” and asked her to put together 15 minutes of the best clips from the footage of Dan for a Hartford event.

“I had the best time working with her.” Witham says. “I knew I had to do justice to Dan’s story.”

At first she wasn’t sure what the structure would be. But as she made her way through the raw material, she saw “a through-line. I saw the pain, the release, the suffering, the questioning.”

It was similar to what Witham herself was experiencing at the time through the loss of her father to liver disease. She realized there was something universal about Dan’s situation, that everyone sooner or later experiences the loss or degeneration of a loved one.

That subject, along with the way relationships change when undergoing such a loss, became the story. “Everyone goes through it, and nobody talks about it,” she says. “Dan’s story wanted to be told.”

Wentworth’s and Witham’s production company specializes in raising money for and making films bout socially relevant issues not usually covered by mainstream media. Then they partner with organizations to develop outreach. Juggling other projects on mental illness and the criminal justice system, Witham began to add her own perspective by interviewing Dan, members of the family, and friends. Now she jokes that it will never be finished—until someone literally pulls the videotapes out of her hands.

“I don’t think ultimately it’s a sad film,” Witham says. “Sure, there are sad moments, but there are moments of pure, unadulterated happiness, too.” She calls the film humorous, inspirational, thought provoking, and — most importantly — reassuring. “If Dan can survive something like this, so can we all survive whatever we have to.”

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Kate Davis (“Pucker Up”), a Chilmark summer resident, has lent her talents to the project as a consulting editor. Hollywood filmmaker Harold Ramis got involved after his wife Ericka took one of Nancy Aronie’s writing workshops. So have many other Vineyarders. Peter (“Fever Pitch”) and Melinda Farrelly have pitched in. So have Bob Vila (“This Old House”) and TV producer Diane Barrett.

“There has been amazing community support,” Nancy Aronie says. “It’s like an extended family.” Last year Oak Bluffs merchant Jon Blau organized an event at the Hot Tin Roof where an early version of the film was shown to raise money so Dan could buy a van to travel in.

Once the film’s fine tuning is finished, Witham, Wentworth, and Aronie hope to sell it to a network or cable company for national distribution. Dan, of course, gets in the last word.

“I want this film to sell, so I can pay back my father for my house,” he says. Then he pitches his latest joke: “What do you get when you cross a dyslexic with an insomniac agnostic? Someone who sits up all night wondering if there is a dog.”
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