Big Enough

PBS Premiere: June 28, 2005Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What would you say Big Enough is about?

Jan Krawitz: Big Enough explores many different themes. It's about dwarfs, who they are, what their concerns are, and how they are trying to live their lives in an average-sized society. On a more general level, the film speaks to the whole issue of otherness, difference, and acceptance. Where are we headed as a society in terms of genetic testing? Who's going to determine the norms about who has the right to have children and who doesn't? I think the film has its tentacles spread quite widely and I intentionally did that. Looking at dwarfs allows us to look at ourselves, meaning the average size world — to look at disability, to look at diversity, to look at acceptance. Those are huge, lofty themes, but they are all part of the sub-text of "Big Enough."

POV: What is compelling to you about Big Enough?

Krawitz: I was originally drawn to the idea of making a film about dwarfs for a number of reasons. The first is that they are a largely invisible minority because there are only about 100,000 dwarfs in the whole country. So it's not a highly visible group of people like the deaf, visually impaired or disabled communities. In a lot of ways, little people don't completely identify with the disability community. One could say that dwarfs are only disabled because they are forced to live in a world that is scaled differently than they are. But the minute you put them in a scaled-down home, it's the average-sized person who becomes the "other." So I'm completely fascinated with that whole idea of "difference" and how arbitrary it is. Looking at little people allows us, as an average-sized society, to look at ourselves and consider why we are so intent on highlighting differences among people and ostracizing those who are different from the majority.

Big Enough - Little People of America convention

Little People of America convention

As a documentary filmmaker, I never plan to return to a topic of a previous film. But 20 years after co-directing Little People, my 1982 film about dwarfs, my interest was galvanized for a number of reasons. I was particularly curious to find out what the impact of appearing in Little People had been for some of the original participants, particularly those who had been children at the time. A second motivation was that the Americans with Disabilities Act had passed in 1990. I wanted to know whether the implementation of that law had changed things for little people.

Another impetus was the advent of genetic testing, which directly affected little people since the gene for achondroplasia (the most common type of dwarfism) had been identified in 1994. There was a lot of controversy and discussion within the dwarf community about the long-term implications of this discovery. My initial research raised the prickly question about whether dwarfs could become a group of people that no longer exists in 30 or 40 years. All of the dwarfs who appeared in Little People were born into average-sized families and many of them didn't even meet another little person until they were well into their teens or early 20s. In "Big Enough," I was interested in exploring the issue of "second-generation" dwarfism: looking at how the experience of dwarf kids growing up with dwarf parents might differ from the experience of their parents, all of whom had been raised in average-sized families. Finally, there is the natural curiosity that we all have about how our lives (and by extension, the lives of others) play out against expectations.

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POV: Is there a dwarf culture, similar to deaf culture, say, or other minority groups?

Krawitz: There is a national organization, founded in 1957, called Little People of America (LPA). Its purpose was not so much to be a lobbying organization for dwarfs, (although it has functioned occasionally in that way) but more to be a social organization offering a place where little people could periodically come together to meet, have a good time, and share information. At national LPA conventions or regional get-togethers, there are medical workshops, sibling workshops or clothing workshops. It really runs the gamut.

When I first got involved with the organization in 1980, they often referred to the national convention as the "52nd week," because it was the single week out of the year when they became average among a community of their peers. It's a unique experience for little people to come together in a place where they don't have to worry about people staring, they don't have to explain themselves and they are basically among people who are physically like themselves. Of course, within any group of little people, you find as much difference and diversity — culturally, politically, ethnically — as you would among a group of average-sized individuals. So I wouldn't say there is a "dwarf culture" per se, but there certainly are many common shared experiences among dwarfs that cause them to connect with each other in a way that is distinct from their interaction with an average-sized person.

Of course, some little people want nothing to do with other dwarfs. They choose to remain uninvolved with LPA and socialize only with average-sized peers. Just because you're a dwarf, you don't have to be a member of this "club" comprised of other little people. But certainly a lot of dwarfs and average-sized parents of dwarf children choose to seek out other little people for the support system that it can provide.

POV: What would you describe as the challenges dwarfs face in everyday life?

Krawitz: When I started making this film 20 years after making Little People, I was curious as to whether the experiences of dwarf kids growing up today would be similar to those of 20 years ago and hopeful that they had improved. Unfortunately, I found that things have not substantively changed. Even though our society has made inroads into legislative changes (the 1990 ADA Act made certain environments more accessible), there is no way that society can legislate attitudinal change. So a seven-year-old average-sized kid today is just as likely to be cruel to a dwarf child at school or out in public as they would in 1982. It seems that dwarf kids growing up today continue to have a very difficult time being accepted and becoming socially integrated into their peer groups, particularly as they reach adolescence. However, there is probably greater sensitivity on the part of teachers in conjunction with the societal bias towards inclusion and mainstreaming. Most little people don't consider themselves disabled, and in many ways they aren't. They are just living in a world that is scaled for people of a different height. The minute you put them in a world that's scaled for them, much of what is perceived to be a "disability" disappears. So today they continue to face both physical challenges as well as the emotional challenges that result from the attitudinal oppression perpetuated by the average-sized society.

Ironically, much of the accessibility measures that have been implemented as a result of the ADA do not benefit little people. For example, light switches still remain out of reach and public toilets that are constructed for wheelchairs are higher than average and therefore even more inaccessible to little people. In "Big Enough," I depict some of the everyday challenges confronted by Mark and Anu as they attempt to pump gas, use an ATM machine or get soda from a dispenser in the self-serve restaurant where they eat lunch.

POV: What can average-sized society do to change that reality?

Krawitz: What I do as a filmmaker is to make a film like "Big Enough." When I've had the opportunity to be present at screenings of the film, I find that audiences are both touched and enlightened by what they see. Most average-sized people know very little about dwarfism. I can only hope that the next time someone who sees Big Enough meets a little person on the street, they won't avert their gaze. They should look at them in the same way that they would look at an average-sized person and perhaps with more understanding than they might have had before seeing the film.

When I first started researching Little People in 1981, I often heard dwarfs discuss how they felt invisible on the street because people would always look away and fail to acknowledge their presence. Or the opposite would occur where adults or children would make overtly derogatory comments within hearing distance. I have since made it a point to make direct eye contact with anyone I encounter who might have a physical difference or be in a wheelchair. It's a subtle thing, but I think it can really make a difference in people's lives.

The more utopian goal is that we, as an average-sized society, stop finding ways to exclude people and try to create a kinder, gentler culture that is genuinely, and not just legislatively, more inclusive.

POV: How did the second generation dwarf children play into your vision for Big Enough?

Krawitz: This whole idea of second-generation dwarfism — that is, dwarf kids born to dwarf parents — was very important to me. I think the discussion about who should be permitted to have kids is a question that becomes more relevant as time goes on. It has particular currency at the moment because of the implications of genetic testing. Although the dwarfism gene is not routinely tested for among the average-sized population, it is an option offered to dwarf couples who choose to have a child. A dwarf couple might choose to be tested in order to determine whether the fetus carries the double-dominant dwarf condition (a 25 percent probability) that results in the death of the baby shortly after birth. They then can make a decision about whether or not to carry the baby to term. I've noticed that many dwarf couples who decide to have children hope to have a dwarf child like themselves. This may come as a surprise to the average-sized individual who probably assumes that they would hope for an average-sized child.

In "Big Enough," I specifically chose to include a dwarf couple from Little People who, at the time of the earlier film, was wrestling with the idea of starting a family. I knew that they had since gone on to have two dwarf children, both of whom were now teenagers. Ron and Sharon (the dwarf parents) grew up in average-sized homes and did not meet other little people until they were well into their 20s. So I was curious about whether their dwarf teenagers had had an easier time of it because they didn't grow up with the same sense of isolation. It seems that both Alisha and Andrew (their children) had had fewer struggles, perhaps because they felt secure in the knowledge that their parents had experienced and transcended the same obstacles that they faced. The two kids grew up within LPA, so they always had a supportive network of friends who were dwarfs. Admittedly they didn't live nearby, but several times a year at regional meetings, they could experience that special camaraderie provided by the interaction with other dwarfs. Alisha talks about an incident when she was teased by kids at school and shared the experience with her mom (Sharon). In the film, she says, "If I had average-sized parents, I think it would have been like me being alone in the big world. It would have been kinda bad."

You can also look at someone like Mark, who was an 11-year-old boy in Little People, with average-sized parents and average-sized siblings. He grew up feeling great about himself and still has a remarkable sense of self-confidence. So I don't want to falsely over-emphasize the "second generation" phenomenon because there are many examples of dwarfs who were raised in average-sized families and emerged with healthy self-esteem. It does seem that dwarf couples who now have kids can assume that their children will have an easier time of it because they will not be as isolated as they were a generation ago. When we made Little People, it was more usual for dwarf couples to choose not to start families, or perhaps to adopt a dwarf child.

POV: Why did you choose documentary as your storytelling genre?

Krawitz: Documentary is the one genre in which I have consistently chosen to work. I've been drawn to non-fiction since I was in high school. In my early filmmaking classes, I was always interested in finding stories in the world around me rather than creating fiction. What's wonderful about documentary is the way it sanctions you to experience the world, react to it, and put a frame around it. I use situations and experiences that exist in the world to distill themes and make statements, (hopefully obliquely). Big Enough could not exist as a fictional narrative. Part of what's fascinating about this film for me is the longitudinal quality: to see people 20 years ago and then today — to observe how their lives have diverged from what their hopes and expectations had been. This ability to follow a real person over time is unique to documentary. The authenticity of that experience would be dissipated in a fictional realm in which "characters" are played by different actors over time and the outcomes are fictitious.

I find documentary to be a fascinating, dynamic, and unpredictable form. I don't think it's an accident that we are currently seeing a spate of documentaries making it to the big screen. Viewers gravitate to the stuff of real life and you see quite a few fiction films that are based on compelling, true stories. The greatest writer in the world couldn't create, out of their imagination, some of the characters and situations that I've seen in documentaries.

POV: What was your greatest satisfaction with this film?

Krawitz: The fact that everyone who I asked to be in Big Enough agreed to participate in this follow-up film was a validation of the positive relationship that emerged between my "subjects" and me during the making of Little People. It was a privilege to go back to a topic that has stayed near and dear to my heart for 20 years. Of all the films I've made, Little People and now Big Enough have been the most significant for me personally, and hopefully for the audience. It's been a real privilege for me to have an ongoing relationship with the many people that I've met through these two films. It's impossible to interact with a group of people like this over time and not have it affect your own world-view.

I don't like to think I was ever particularly close-minded, but I feel like I'm much more comfortable with people who are different from myself, whether it be a physical difference, an attitudinal difference or a cultural difference. It's difficult to articulate and quantify. How do all of the myriad experiences we have as individuals change us? But the important point is that I was only able to have this experience because of my role as a documentary filmmaker. Documentary is like a passport that gives me entrée to situations, events, and groups of people that I otherwise would be completely excluded from. And to me that's a real privilege.

POV: Did anything surprising happen in the making of Big Enough?

Krawitz: There are always surprises when one makes a documentary. You set out in good faith to explore a particular topic in a particular way and you try to achieve that goal. I think it's really important to know what themes you're after, so when something starts to happen while you're on location, you can assess whether it's germane to the film you're trying to make and therefore, whether you should film it.

One example from Big Enough is when we filmed the scene of Mark and Anu in their average-sized kitchen. It's very clear that they are having a lot of trouble because they are living in a house that is not suitable for them. After leaving their home in Virginia, we drove 1,000 miles to Michigan to Len and Lenette's house. I had not seen their average-sized son Brandon since he was three years old. The family no longer lived in the house where we filmed them in 1981 and they now have a scaled-down kitchen in the current home. So when we arrived at their new house and I met Brandon (who is five feet ten), in their scaled-down kitchen, I knew I wanted to film a scene of him in that environment. So I said, "Brandon do you like to cook?" He said, "Well, sometimes." I said, "Great." And that's how the scene came about — although it was nothing I had pre-designed.

I think the importance of the scene is that it's a wonderful counterpoint to the filming we had just done in Mark and Anu's kitchen. Nothing is overtly stated, but the visuals suggest that Brandon is the "other" in this scaled-down environment. Since we normally pigeonhole little people in the average-sized world as being different, as being the "other," I wanted the audience to observe Brandon in his out-of-scale kitchen, and think, "What's 'wrong' with this guy? Something is wrong with him." What's "wrong" with him is the environment. And that's a point that Len, his father, has been trying to articulate to the average-sized world for the past 20 years — that "the problem exists in the environment." The scene of Karla getting fitted for new clothes functions in a similar way. I had no idea that she would have such difficulty climbing on to the kitchen chair. The shot is much more telling than a verbal description of the many obstacles she faces on a daily basis would have been.

That is the wonderful serendipitous aspect of documentary. I never "script" scenes like these. Documentary is constantly offering up unexpected surprises.

POV: What do you want audiences to take away from Big Enough?

Krawitz: I would like audiences to be affected by the underlying theme of the shared human experience that's present in the film. If they come to this film with either no expectations or erroneous expectations about who dwarfs are, I would hope that they leave the film with the belief that dwarfs are, in every way but stature, the same as average-sized people. They have the same concerns, they're trying to get through life with the same goals and aspirations, they're striving for fulfilling careers, they're deciding whether to have children and they're looking for love.

The film purposely focuses 90 percent on things that are common to the human experience and 10 percent on things that distinguish little people from others. I would like people start questioning how historical stereotypes continue to perpetuate the legacy of circus clowns, dwarf tossing, and "midget" jokes, all of which still exist today. And I would like the audience to confront their own attitudes toward the implications of genetic testing and the decision that many dwarfs are making to start families. I think this whole discussion promises to be the elephant in the living room in coming years, so the ending of Big Enough plants the seed for this ongoing dialogue.

POV: What advice would you give to a first-time filmmaker?

Krawitz: I think the most important piece of advice is to only undertake a film that they feel passionate about. If they settle on a topic that doesn't fully engage them, there is nothing to fuel the creative commitment required to survive the two, three, or four-year process that is often required to realize a documentary film.

I've never been one to embark on a film by second-guessing the market or trying to figure out what's topical or fundable at a particular moment in time. Some people work that way and that's okay for them. But for me that would probably mean that I would end up with a film that isn't really close to my heart. I think it's really important to make a film that you absolutely care about because if you don't absolutely care about it, it's really hard for an audience to wrap themselves around it with any enthusiasm.

My final piece of advice would be "less is more"! With the advent of non-linear editing, there is no longer the proverbial cutting room floor where discarded pieces of footage belong. I find that a lot of first-time filmmakers, working with inexpensive technology, are seduced into making an epic when a sonnet is more appropriate.