Director Duane Graves put together a pleasant little film portrait of his close friend in 1999. This documentary does not boast a large budget, sleek editing, beautiful high definition photography, or even a hard-hitting political message. It merely presents his friend, Rene Moreno, as a focal point for our attention. Duane Graves is simply an amateur filmmaker who recognized an interesting subject when he saw it, and Rene Moreno, in addition to being a fascinating microcosm for the Down Syndrome community, is just a natural-born entertainer. This is Up Syndrome (2000).
There exists a mythical bond between Duane and Rene. They met when they were both younger. Duane’s mother told him that Rene had Down Syndrome, which baffled the young Duane because Rene didn’t seem down at all, he seemed happy. This is a fine beginning as it reveals the innocence that can destroy preconceptions about Down Syndrome. Duane got a camera as a present and together with Rene, made several horror home movies and their friendship grew. The documentary picks up again with Rene at age 23 in the summer following his graduation. Rene Moreno is a resident of San Antonio, Texas, a die-hard Spurs fan, and employee of the local grocery store. And Rene can really tell a story.
The film does not have a plot, but rather it presents a collection of mini-scenes and moments. Rene tells the camera important things about himself and shows us the things that matter to him. We become attached to this unpretentious, charismatic individual and we come to realize that we enjoy listening to him and spending time with him. He eagerly awaits the arrival of his sister’s baby so he can be an uncle. He humorously impersonates the kids from his class at school. He shoots off fireworks on the Fourth of July. He demonstrates some pretty slick bowling moves as well as karate punches on an unassuming reclining chair. He strums guitar and sings. He recounts the funeral after his grandfather died. He informs us that his girlfriend has broken up with him. He is saddened when he loses his job and cannot find another one. He prays over lottery tickets and asks God for a job. And he longingly stares into the darkened windows of his old school building and reflects on all the teachers in his yearbook he misses.
Rene Moreno’s desire for independence and to help and have belonging is an important one. He does not want his mother to think of him as a baby forever. Rene wants to grow up. This dilemma is a significant issue because sometimes society appears unwilling or unsure of how to help integrate people with learning disabilities into the working world. Are Rene’s ambitions too big? What are people like Rene supposed to do after their school career comes to a close? Sadly, many people with Down Syndrome and other problems are left in limbo and this is something that is given a very personal, human face in Up Syndrome. Rene Moreno demonstrates humor, imagination, affection, innocence, pride, and joyfulness, but there is an important social issue beneath the surface.
When I worked with children with special needs I recognized the problem that Up Syndrome pointed out. In a school environment everyone is encouraged to learn and interact and play and develop, with some kids’ curriculums even tailor made just for them based on their abilities. The school is safe and full of growing, but what happens next? Duane’s documentary is a fascinatingly intimate one-on-one with Rene Moreno, but he is mostly left to his own devices as his schooling is done and he attempts to acclimate to life outside. After a much enjoyed class reunion where Rene gets to see many of his old friends back in school and dance with everybody, we wonder what adjustments all of these other young people are having to make too. There is not enough support and encouragement beyond the school system to help people like Rene become happy contributors to society and culture. Don’t think they can contribute to society or culture? Then consider celebrated artist Judith Scott, she was deaf and had Down Syndrome and her story can be seen in the 2006 documentary, Outsider: The Life and Art of Judith Scott. Scott’s incredible sculptures are compelling and very evocative and representative of the separation and longing she felt for her fraternal twin sister. Scott’s work provides a unique insight as to what the world looks like from a completely foreign perspective. People with Down Syndrome are valuable and important too. Duane Graves certainly believes that, and Rene certainly is a ball of life to contend with. Sadly, according a 2008 UK News article, research states that “92 percent of women who receive an antenatal diagnosis of Down’s syndrome decide to terminate the pregnancy. This proportion has not changed since 1989.”
Perhaps there is a fear. Perhaps we do not know what to do with these people. Rene Moreno might be limited in some ways, but aren’t we all? Tough issues, but the film remains as optimistic as its subject. When the film takes the time to show Rene discussing his understanding of death and considers his own death in the future, and then goes on to show him reveling in playing cop in a parked car in the garage and using his hand as a gun (complete with exciting sound effect track!), we, the viewer, get the full spectrum of human emotion. Rene Moreno is a dynamic ball of entertainment and his comfortableness with his friend Duane Graves as director allows us to get closer to his soul than we might have been able to with someone else at the helm.
Towards the end of the film Rene becomes an uncle and shares a precious moment holding the new baby. The tenderness is magical. After all the small moments and big moments that we have shared with Rene Moreno it is time to say goodbye. We have gotten a glimpse into Rene’s world. What defines a human being’s worth? Just the limits of his intellect? Certainly not. I smiled and laughed along with Rene and Duane as they joked around with each other and I thought about some of Rene’s faith and philosophical advice. As the curtain closes on this charming little movie, Rene takes a moment to tell us, “No drinking and no smoking.” So what is there to be down about? I’d say Duane Graves’ life has been brought up from his friendship with Rene.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” May 13, 2011