He ain’t heavy, he’s my sibling

He ain’t heavy, he’s my sibling

‘My Hero Brother,’ Yonatan Nir’s latest film, looks at a trek through the mountains by special needs adults and the siblings who help them along the way

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The Israeli desire to trek abroad, setting out on rough paths in search of vistas unknown, is turned in unexpected directions in “My Hero Brother,” the newest documentary from filmmaker Yonatan Nir.

Nir, known for his 2011 film “Dolphin Boy,” about a severely beaten Arab teenager who recovers through intensive therapy by swimming with Eilat dolphins, turned his camera on adults with Down Syndrome and their siblings, as the pairs trekked through the Himalayas in northern India on a two-week journey designed to reexamine their complex sibling relationships.

“This is the kind of topic that interests me,” said Nir. “People who have an issue and go through a journey of sorts, in nature, examining the connection between people and nature and dealing with pain and hurt and a type of closure.”

He first heard about the brothers’ journey on a Channel 2 news piece about Enosh and Hanan Cassel, two brothers — Hanan has Down Syndrome — who went on a 2011 trip to Nepal in order to reconnect.

“We were always very close,” said Enosh Cassel, 35, who is married with kids and lives in the country’s center. “But we’ve been less in touch since Hanan moved away from home.”

Hanan Cassel, 29, lives in Gvaot, a school for people with special needs, in Gush Etzion.

The Cassel brothers, Enosh (standing) and Hanan at the end of their Himalayan trek (Courtesy 'My Hero Brother')
The Cassel brothers, Enosh (standing) and Hanan, at the end of their Himalayan trek (Courtesy ‘My Hero Brother’)

Cassel wanted his younger brother Hanan to experience the travel to parts unknown undertaken by many young Israelis after their army service.

“He doesn’t speak so well, and it’s hard to know what’s going on in his daily life when we speak on the phone,” he said. “We needed to go through something intensive and then I could understand what life is like for him right now.”

That first trip “wasn’t easy but was great,” said Cassel. When they returned home and were interviewed by Channel 2, there was a wave of reaction from others with siblings with Down Syndrome.

“We got a lot of reactions,” said Cassel. “And we understood that we’d done something very positive that awakened all kinds of impressions.”

When Itamar Peleg, the owner of Travelog, a tour company specializing in unusual journeys got in touch with Cassel, the two began planning a trip for 22 siblings, 11 pairs. They spent two years planning the trip, handling the bureaucracy, crowdfunding the trip and bringing together the group for regular meetings in order to get to know one another.

Nir came to the project as an outsider.

“I don’t have a sibling with Down Syndrome,” he said. “The idea was to allow myself to experience it and to open my heart and get close to them. At the start, I thought the heroes were the siblings who take the Down siblings and deal with those difficulties. Then I realized I have a lot to learn from those with Down Syndrome, the way they don’t take themselves too seriously, the way they live in the moment, their emotional intelligence without all the filters and masks we wear. We have a lot to learn from them.”

Yonatan Nir, whose latest film, 'My Hero Brother,' displays his interest in xxx (Courtesy 'My Hero Brother')
Yonatan Nir, whose latest film, ‘My Hero Brother,’ displays his interest in peoples’ emotional journeys (Courtesy ‘My Hero Brother’)

Nir joined the 2013 trek in India, bringing a small crew of four camerapeople with him on the trek, with a plan to spread out and film different pairs of siblings for what he knew would be a “very intensive” two weeks.

“You have to be very open to situations that can happen and be flexible, but also have a storyline in your head because otherwise you’’ll be lost and have too many episodes that have no connection to your story,” he said.

Each evening, he would sit with his crew to discuss what they had filmed and which storylines were developing.

Not every sibling pair is shown in the film, given that some pairs were more visible and emotionally available to the film crew. As a viewer, it isn’t always easy to gain a full picture of the difficulties and challenges presented during the journey.

Every sibling pair was different, said Cassel. There were pairs of siblings who had never really known each other, and others like him, who are close to their special needs sibling, but had found it harder to have a relationship now that they were all adults.

“I didn’t expect it would be so meaningful,” he said. “People are saying it was something life-changing, a milestone in their communication with their sibling.”

For Nir, there was another layer to the 78-minute film, as he ended up working with singer Ehud Banai on the music for the film. A huge fan of the singer, he listened to Banai frequently during the trip in India, as the musician’s songs had always formed the background of his life, during the army, on his travels and in his work.

The group of trekkers from 'My Hero Brother' singing with Ehud Banai (Courtesy 'My Hero Brother')
The group of trekkers from ‘My Hero Brother’ singing with Ehud Banai (Courtesy ‘My Hero Brother’)

When they return from India, Nir reached out to Banai.

“He told me, “I think I have a journey song that would be perfect,’” said Nir. “He’s met all the siblings and we have a connection, a kind of energy between us.”

In the three years since they took the trek, the sibling pairs of “My Hero Brother” have met regularly, and the organization is creating an interactive website for people with disabilities and their siblings. They aren’t organizing another trip just yet, but their hope is that the website will draw other sibling pairs to create their own journey and post their own photos of their experiences, creating a community of hero sibling pairs.

“You don’t need to go to the Himalayas,” said Nir. “You can go to Paris too.”

Another sibling pair from 'My Hero Brother,' in the Himalayas (Courtesy 'My Hero Brother')
Another sibling pair from ‘My Hero Brother,’ in the Himalayas (Courtesy ‘My Hero Brother’)

The film, said Nir, speaks to anyone with a sibling with special needs and to any human being.

“I think that films aren’t just documenting reality but creating reality,” he said. “It’s really important to show the tough things that happen and to sometimes put our focus on the good things and the good people that do important things. I can give it the attention and respect it deserves.”

Screenings of “My Hero Brother” will take place across Israel in September and are listed on the Facebook page. The film will be released in October in Cinematheques across Israel, and will be screened in North America in January.

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