Music

This touching documentary shows how singing gives community to people with intellectual disabilities

'Everyone in the choir is loved,' says one member of Montreal's Shira Choir, the subject of Just as I Am, streaming now on CBC Gem.
Just as I Am follows several members of Montreal Shira Choir during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ontic Media)

The emotional and psychological benefits of singing in a choir are well known. Now, a touching new documentary film, directed by Evan Beloff, shows those benefits at work in a specific demographic: adults with intellectual disabilities.

In Just as I Am, now streaming on CBC Gem, we meet Daniel Benlolo, a cantor and rabbi who founded Montreal Shira Choir for "special needs adults who are regularly left out of the structured confines of school once they've reached aged 21." He has seen how singing in the ensemble provides these individuals with motivation, goals and community, and the results are transformative.

"Everybody in the choir is loved," says chorister Kemoy Connor at one point in the film.

Benlolo was previously based in Ottawa, where in 2002 he established and conducted a similar group, Tamir Choir, which toured to Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Florida, Morocco and Israel, inspiring audiences and raising awareness for the excluded and marginalized.

Daniel Benlolo was the recipient of the 2013 Governor General Caring Canadian Award, among many distinctions. (Ontic Media)

When he moved to Montreal in 2017 to be closer to his family, Benlolo was determined to replicate that success with Shira Choir. But not long after he established the group, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Much of Just as I Am deals with Benlolo's attempts to keep the choir going with Zoom rehearsals and socially distant porch visits.

His efforts are as extraordinary as his choristers' longing to be together again is palpable. 

The film also underscores the strain parents are under when caring for adults with intellectual disabilities. "We can't die, can we?" the mother of chorister Ayush Abeyratne asks rhetorically. "We have to be there forever because if we're not there, who's going to be there for our children?" It becomes apparent that Shira Choir is as important to parents as it is to its members.

The film's most poignant storyline follows chorister Jonah Davis Yanofsky, who repeatedly expresses concern over everyone's safety in the face of the pandemic, and exhibits a preoccupation with death. Sadly, Jonah's father, Joel Yanovsky, battles terminal cancer and dies during the course of the film, but not before saying to the camera at one point, "If I ever needed a reminder of the importance of community, it's been my time watching Jonah with the Shira Choir."

Music not only brings people together, Beloff's documentary makes plain; it also challenges, heals and uplifts them.

Watch the trailer, below. Just as I Am is currently streaming on CBC Gem. View it here.

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