Simplicity works. For proof, look no further than Ssstutter. The short documentary, created by students in the Film Production program at VFS, hit YouTube and instantly earned praise: commenters are genuinely surprised at what they’d learned in just a few minutes. It’s also gotten the attention of stuttering associations around the world.
At the heart of the film’s success? Well, the old adage “write what you know” holds true for documentaries, too; just ask Film grads Bruce Oothout, Ssstutter‘s director, and Youssef El-Khoury, its producer. They both had a personal history with stuttering.
But above all, Ssstutter works because of its simple, direct approach: find the perfect subject in 16-year-old Hannah Seaman and let her speak for herself.
After VFS, Oothout settled in Portland, Oregon, while El-Khoury is based in Atlantic Canada. We asked them about how the film came together and what they thought about the reaction it’s been getting.
What was the original genesis of the film? What made you want to cover the topic of stuttering in the first place?
Oothout: I myself am a fellow stutterer. Although pretty fluent now, when I was younger it was much more pronounced. This had a deep, profound impact on my personality and the way I viewed the world around me. For this reason, from the outset I told Youssef that I did not want the piece to become about me, even in an indirect way. But I felt, thought, hoped, that it was an important subject, one that the general populace just might find as fascinating and compelling as I do.
Youssef, what drew you to the subject?
El-Khoury: We came upon the idea of stuttering when Bruce mentioned his experiences as a stutterer as a young boy. This brought me back to my own experiences as a stutterer when I was president of the student council in high school, when I had to make speeches in front of the whole student body. It was at this point that we decided to choose the topic of stuttering for our documentary.
Having a subject matter that we could both draw personal familiarity with was the first step in making a great documentary. Not only that, I knew that the struggles that we had lived through as stutterers would motivate us to do the best that we could to share with the world how could someone turn stuttering into a positive. Furthermore, the idea of having an encouraging message made it possible to have an arc. Knowing that storytelling is the most powerful way to relay a message to an individual, I did not just want to present facts. As a documentary filmmaker, I wanted to tell a story.
Where did you find Hannah? Was she always going to be at the centre of the film?
Oothout: The film, as per most documentaries, changed radically from conception to final edit. The initial idea was to feature three subjects at three distinct places on the stuttering continuum. We would have an acute stutterer, one that was in the middle of therapy, and one that had been through therapy, either personal or professional, and was pretty much 100% fluent.
Then, mostly because of time constraints – the film had to clock in at ten minutes or less – we opted to just go with two main subjects. So we worked really hard with the speech therapy community in Vancouver, which proved to be very helpful and supportive, and finally found a small pool of potential subjects.
El-Khoury: We learned about the British Columbia Association of People Who Stutter (BCAPS). We contacted the President, Mia Austinson, and she shared with us the contact info of many stutterers in the city of Vancouver.
We found many stutterers willing to participate in the documentary. Yet, none had the all the characteristics we were looking for. We were forced to reassess the situation. Since our shooting date was fast approaching, we decided that it would be best to continue searching for the ideal subject while constructing a story around our current potential subjects as a backup plan.
We returned to speak with Sandi Bojm, a speech pathologist that we formed a strong relationship with. After some reflection, she remembered of a teenager named Hannah whom Sandi said matched what we were looking for. She gave us her number after contacting her parents and we went on to call her.
Oothout: We were on the phone, trying to make an arrangement for a time that we could come out to her home and film her, and hopefully her parents. Hannah’s mother, Francine, informed us that they were leaving on a lengthy vacation is just two days.
El-Khoury: We asked our instructor if we could shoot early. After making a case of the importance of this interview they allowed our crew to shoot the interview at an earlier date. We finally got in touch with Hannah’s parents the day before the interview to confirm the time. The date was set.
Oothout: We frantically went out to their home and filmed for a good five hours. It was intense and hectic. Then we filmed our other subject, Brett, who would subsequently be dropped from the final edit. We also filmed an amazingly sweet and knowledgeable speech pathologist named Sandi, who you see in the short.
When we got to the editing room, and watched all the footage, it became blatantly obvious that the film should be entirely about Hannah. The effect that the footage of her had on pretty much everyone who viewed it was something to see. People were riveted, moved, amazed, by Hannah. Her courage, her character, her will; it was hard not to be both deeply impressed and somewhat in awe of her as a person. So we went with that. And we think the film is much more powerful for it.
What is it about this film that’s made it strike a chord?
Oothout: When you witness someone firsthand who is dealing with an affliction, in almost real time, it can’t help but tap into a plethora of immediate psychological and emotional reactions. I also think that the educational value or aspect of the short is a big component.
The fact is that stuttering is not something that the general populace seems to know a lot, if anything, about. And what they do know is usually gleaned from exploitative, low-brow pop culture caricatures.
El-Khoury: The reason why I think Ssstutter has struck a chord with viewers is because it speaks to something everyone can relate to.
No matter where you are from, when you are born, or how rich or poor you are, we have all struggled at one point or another. We wanted to convey that even with struggles one could rise above the hurdles
Essentially, this documentary is about hope. That’s something everybody can understand.