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Director's job with disabled leads to film

September 16, 2003|Marisa Lagos | Times Staff Writer

To hear him tell it, the way Santa Barbara documentary filmmaker Sevan Matossian began filming "Our House" was as much a matter of fate as planning. The 30-year-old had worked for five years in a state-owned, privately run home for disabled adults in Isla Vista where residents live with assistance from an around-the-clock staff.

"I would tell people about my job. I could tell by their expressions that they in no way got it," he recalled. "I started filming.... The next thing I knew, it was a year later."

The filmmaker took his experiences there and created "Our House," his first full-length film, which makes its Los Angeles debut today at the Silver Lake Film Festival. Dubbed Sueno House by employees because of its location on Sueno Road, it represents the closest most of the residents have ever come to independence.

What the documentary is, Matossian said, must be prefaced by what it is not -- a cliched, heart-wrenching look at the disabled. Instead, he insists, it's an honest and fair portrayal of the way in which the residents and staff grow over a one-year period, Matossian included.

Matossian, a first-generation Armenian American, grew up in Berkeley and was just "floating" around Isla Vista five years ago when he began working at the house. The formerly homeless filmmaker owned only a dog, Caesar, at the time -- he bought a camper to live in after he was hired at Sueno House. Matossian still lives in that camper, where he edited and produced "Our House" for $600 as well as all 20 episodes of his first production, "IVTV," and a handful of other short films.

"IVTV" led to what first put Matossian -- and Isla Vista -- on television screens nationwide: his filming of the bloody aftermath of a vehicular rampage that killed four young pedestrians, injured another and sent the driver, David Attias, to a mental institution.

The show, in its own words, set out to "document the Isla Vista culture with raw authenticity." But Matossian believes his true tribute to the community comes in this 83-minute documentary, which showcases such residents as:

* Laura, the film's youngest subject at 21. She is also the one most conflicted -- and angry -- about her own identity and disabilities, which include Tourette syndrome.

* Tim S., 30, who was born with Down syndrome and sent to a state hospital after his anger became so out of control that his family couldn't handle him.

* Tim W., 47, who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and mild retardation. As a child, he witnessed his father's murder at the hands of his stepfather. Tim is also an alcoholic, a situation that sparks the verbal rampages that eventually force the staff to kick him out.

What ends up linking these three and Matossian seems to be a strange fate -- and a mutual trust that has grown out of that fate. Matossian said that if you had asked him at 20 where he was going to be in a decade, this would not have even crossed his mind. But the gulf remaining between the three and Matossian can be striking too, and the filmmaker's role at the Sueno House -- somewhere between friend and policeman -- is conflicted. "You're not a warden," Matossian explained, but it's clear that the staff's lack of control and inability to help many of these clients can be unbelievably frustrating.

In one scene, Laura "ticks" for what the narrator, Matossian, tells us is four hours. At times biting herself, at others screaming hysterically, she repeatedly yells, with complete self-awareness, "It's not fair."

But there are also lighter moments. In one, Tim W. and Tim S. hurl insults at one another until a staffer looks at them in disbelief and asks, "Are you two arguing over who is more retarded?" Matossian said audiences laugh at such moments, a sign he takes to mean they are getting it -- that the film's central figures are just people. He balks at the notion that it is mean or unfair.

"Part of the movie is to give them a voice ... this is just them. The majority of Laura's life isn't positive," Matossian said. "What are you going to do if your whole life people feel sorry for you?"

"In the end," Matossian adds, "you love them -- you love the fact that you've had the opportunity to love."

Next for the filmmaker -- who has already taken awards at other film festivals where the documentary has been screened -- is a documentary on arm wrestling, entitled "Pulling John."

Why arm wrestling? Matossian had typed in "Armenian genocide" on Google one day and that's what popped up. The subject immediately sparked an interest, and he started to run with the idea -- just like filming Sueno House five years ago.

This time, Matossian believes that the best plan isn't having one -- once again, he's just trusting fate.


'Our House'

Where: Los Feliz 3 Cinema, 1822 N. Vermont Blvd.

When: Today, 4:30 p.m.

Price: $10

Contact: (323) 664-2169; tickets are also available by calling (866) 468-3399, online at or at the Vista Theatre office

Running time: 83 minutes

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