AJ Brossoit: "Let's Get Over Zombies"

interview by marie chung

Arthur John Brossoit is a young and budding independent film director who has travelled an hour South to get to where I am in Laval, Montreal. At the age of 8, AJ was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy. As I learn more about him, he reveals that he has suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from bullying in high school. These circumstances are not one of defeat for him, they have become building blocks to develop confidence and pursue his career in film. AJ explores the unusual in his films, he explains that the post-apocalyptic trends are too predictable. Instead he is interested in world powers and the irreversibility of destroying Human DNA. AJ remains passionate about his work and he shares with us, what is beyond zombie films and being a victim of life.

How did you come to independent film directing?

I have been doing unpaid production assistant work for sometime now, and I realized that I could instead do that independently and direct films for myself. I’ve always pushed to do more things in life but never did. This time I kept pushing for it. I haven’t done it for the money, even though most people do it for those reasons. My cast and crew are like family to me.

Have you always had that confidence to work in film as a director and develop your work?

No. When I went to Trebas Institute, I was in the Film Intelligence Program where I learned a lot about the cut-throat industry and people attacking each other. At this school, I was targeted and out casted. In the first semester, I had a great teacher who taught me how to write ideas, how to pitch things perfectly and he was the only one who could get the idea in your head and deliver it. Now I find that it is easier to talk to people, and it is easier to do contracts and call outs. In my last semester, I was alienated and my classmates and teacher said that everything I said was a lie.

Is that what drove you to become autonomous and work for yourself?

Yeah. I didn’t want someone dictating me. If I am doing something wrong, and I believe I am doing something wrong, I will admit it. But if someone tells me that I am doing something wrong and I know that that person is morally wrong, that’s not right.

Are you looking for other work alongside film?

At the end of the first day at a new job two weeks ago, I could barely walk because of the cold temperatures here in Canada. My mum was literally pushing me up the stairs – that was the first time I had a cramp that bad that went from the legs up to the base of the spine. I hadn’t realized how much I had done. With my Muscular Dystrophy, sometimes you slip on ice and reflexively contract your muscles, but you won’t feel it till later.

I’ve also had three interviews since April and I have been screwed over in all of them. The first interviewer did not hire me because of my muscular dystrophy.

They’ll tell you in a way that you can’t sue them. “We are sorry but we already have somebody in mind for the position”. I can see it in their face that they are not hiring me because I am an insurance liability.

The other time, McDonalds refused to hire me and literally said they couldn’t hire me because of my muscular dystrophy.

Muscular dystrophy is experienced on a range of levels, what kind do you have?

I have Beckers, which is 90% of the time is a hidden disability. As a kid, they told me in hospital that I would be in a wheelchair by the time I’m 16. Most parents with children who have the disease become depressed and their kids end up being overweight because the parents don’t push them. However, my mum used to be in the military which was a good thing. My dad was different, and it changed the relationship between me and him. All the activities I was doing before I was diagnosed, stopped.

I was still in good shape two years after they initially told me that I’d be in a wheelchair. Beckers makes my calves huge, the thigh muscles are usually engorged. Usually, over exertion in walking or running can cause serious cramps like a Charlie’s Horse.

What’s a Charlie’s Horse?

It’s like having 10 menstrual cramps at once. If I get that, I usually have to find a place to sit. It happens rarely though.

How does MD impact your daily movements?

You would notice it when I walk up and down stairs. Going upstairs, I’m pretty slow. It sometimes strains my lungs and I may have trouble breathing. It usually happens when I’ve done some type of exercise that I’ve never done before.

Does it get better overtime?

It will remain there for the rest of my life and it will not deteriorate unless I don’t do anything. As long as I’m exercising, the muscles will be fine. I tend to stretch before I go to bed.

What support do you have for MD?

Unfortunately Quebec does not recognize Beckers MD as a disability. I cannot get money for it. If you are disabled, you have to be in a wheelchair or literally paralysed. My doctor could not fill out the paper work because I didn’t qualify. I have no support. There is no community for me here. There is one in Toronto but it costs too much to go to. I don’t know anyone else who has Muscular Dystrophy Beckers. I know a lot of people with other forms of MD, but you can’t talk to them because 90% are in the hospital or dying. It’s tough because you know some were in good shape before, and afterwards, they can’t do anything.

Did you play up the role of the victim when you found out in your adolescence?

Sometimes. My mum said it was no excuse and that I was a normal person. She pushed me as a kid. I was severely bullied then for reasons outside of my MD. It was tough because we had to focus on that. Initially I was going into the hospital for adenoids at eight years old, I was getting tests done and they put me to sleep. The problem is that people with muscular dystrophy have an allergic reaction to the anesthesia. During the procedure I remember seeing my grandfather who had already passed. I was able to describe him down to the tee, and he said “get your ass back down there or I’ll kick you in the ass”. That’s pretty much how he talked. When I woke up, they told me that I had MD. My mom found out that her brother Daniel had it too and it was passed on genetically. Women are commonly carriers, but I could possibly pass it down to my own kids.

Does that impact your decision to have kids?

It already has. Sometimes it comes up in relationships and they’ve ended because of that fact. My sons can have what I have or even worse, Duchennes. No one wants to take care of a disabled kid.

At the same time I found out I had MD, they also diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – that was from the bullying. It is not common to occur from bullying itself. After that discovery, I started sleepwalking and I had terror dreams.

My sister ended up having to defend me a lot in primary school. The bullying intensified in high school, especially because of my MD when everyone found out about it. Growing up in highschool, rumours were spread about what I said. On the first day, I had many friends and I must’ve made a good impression, but the next day, no one was talking to me.

I also had an incompetent dad. He was paying attention to my sister more because she was in scouts. When we found out that I had MD, he hated me. The last couple of years he was with us, he treated me like crap. With my sister, it was a father and daughter thing. She’d go fishing with him, he would never ask me. I didn’t mind much because I’d just sit on the boat and eat Doritos.

Eventually, when he left I felt that I had to be the man of the house. I grew up quite fast and started helping my mom. My dad stole a lot of money from my family and my sister and I no longer had a college fund. He disappeared for awhile. Once he got into contact with us and I spent a whole day with him. It was the first time in my whole life I was able to spend a day with him. 6 weeks later, he calls my mum and asks for money to go to Vancouver. We sent him money and he left. We didn’t hear from him anymore.

Have you grown from those experiences of bullying?

Yes, I’ve become much tougher. I try and stand up to people or for people when they can’t stand up for themselves.

Have you always had good grades in high school?

No. That would be as a result of dyslexia, bullying and a lot of factors. My French suffered most. I can’t read it and eventually in the exams, my teacher would help me out and allow me to rewrite my answers.

It sounds like you have gotten to a better place in your life. You have chosen film as a career and worked through your dyslexia.

I honestly believe that people look at me and think that I’m normal. But everyone has a problem with them that you can’t see. Don’t judge a book by its cover. People with MD Beckers, they struggle to get around doing physical things.

Can that message be translated to employers?

I’d like them to understand that just because someone has a disability, it does not mean that they won’t work as hard or harder than others who don’t. I’m a hard worker. I wish employers can see that, but they don’t. They are too worried about their money and I understand that because of the economic pressures.

So what would be an ideal situation then?

To stop worrying about money and to think about how we can improve the next generation, there are other people out there who can make a difference. They can show society and teach them more about this disease. MD is not as popular or known and it’s not making much money in research. People need to understand that every disability is serious and every person with it has to be recognized.

What are your next directions then, for 2015?

Finish my series. This year we are supposed to do 5 short films and a feature and hopefully 2 of them will go to a film festival. I ultimately need a job. I want to expand my company and be able to support that. It won’t be big but I want it to be an indie film company that will be good and not about making money. You don’t need to watch zombies to be entertained by post-apocalyptic things. I’ll give you something new, it’s got sci-fi, it’s got apocalyptic stuff, and it’s also got drama – that’s three genres in one.

Muscular Dystrophy is experienced in a range of ways and AJ’s MD was just one of many types of MD that we discussed today. His is seemingly less severe, though it became obvious in our conversation that MD Becker’s has had repercussions for AJ’s employment, his childhood and networks. AJ reminds us that it is not so easy for governments to neatly package disabilities and grant benefits accordingly. All disabilities require government assistance. Whilst governments poorly provide recognition, social attitudes towards AJ reveal that his disability does affect his quality of life.

AJ continued to talk passionately about film and his developments in his series. His enthusiasm of pushing forward in life left him with barely a moment to take a breath in the conversation. Having many goals underway, AJ is determined to pursue his dreams without mundane obstacles stopping him. It is clear that no measly attacks from employers and networks and certainly no Charlie’s Horse, would prevent AJ from becoming an independent film director who demands nothing less than respect from others.