Accidental Filmmaker

Artemis Joukowsky III and No Limits Media are using film to change the world’s perception of people with disabilities

By Brittany Martin

For Artemis Joukowsky III, films are a vehicle to advocate for social change. 

Since founding the Boston-based nonprofit No Limits Media with business partner Larry Rothstein in 2001, Joukowsky has been a creative force behind numerous films and books that foster the idea that people with disabilities, or “different abilities” as Joukowsky calls them, have value in society. 

“I learned early on that unless you were part of the media conversation, you weren’t going to have an impact,” he says. “My first and greatest love is working on behalf of people with disabilities. So, my life has been about how do you find meaning, how do you find spiritual connection, what is the gift that comes from your challenges? So in that search, the first question was, ‘Could media help us tell that story?’ ”

The goal of No Limits Media, according to its website, is to help “all people with different abilities to live lives of opportunity and achievement through a variety of initiatives, including films, videos, podcasts, television, web, documentaries, art exhibits and educational curriculum.” 

“I think if you look at the voices of people with disabilities, they’ve been expressed in largely patronizing ways, and we’re trying to change that conversation, and we’re also trying to say we’re all differently abled,” Joukowsky says. “Every one of us belongs to a process of living and dying where our capabilities change over time.”

Starting No Limits Media

Joukowsky, who’s now 55, was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at age 14. He was exposed to a broad world view at a young age. He was born in Milan and lived in Lebanon and Hong Kong before moving to New York City in 1974. 

He studied for a year at Columbia University in New York, then transferred to Hampshire College in Massachusetts, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in social ecology. 

His first project with Rothstein and No Limits Media was a photographic essay called Raising The Bar: New Horizons in Disability Sports. Published in 2002, the book showcases athletes, many of them Paralympians, and features quotes from athlete interviews and an introduction by Christopher Reeve. 

The book became the subject of a 2005 photo exhibit at the United Nations (UN), which was visited by thousands of schoolchildren and shown to every head of state in 2006. The exhibit also became part of the advocacy effort that led to the UN’s adoption of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in December 2006.

Joukowsky’s first film project with No Limits Media was a 20-minute documentary titled Alex’s POV in 2004, which was spearheaded by No Limits Media board member Steve Marx. It focused on Alex Freeman, an artist in residence with cerebral palsy, who was directing a film adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven

“For him [Freeman] to become a filmmaker, we needed to create the kind of adaptation of the editing consoles on computers because he couldn’t hold a mouse, so we had to create a mouse out of stick that he could use with his chin, and it worked beautifully. And he could suddenly start to edit. So we put this $20,000 program for him together,” Joukowsky says. “We’ve been willing to take on these projects where a filmmaker like myself who’s disabled is actually able, because of how filmmaking can be done today, to direct a film but not necessarily be running around the Tuscany countryside, if you’re shooting in Tuscany, for example.”

Since that time, No Limits Media has produced and supported many projects, including:

  • Beyond Limits TV: A half hour “magazine format” television program covering the disability community; the pilot of the program was broadcast on the Comcast network in San Francisco and Boston’s ABC affiliate in 2005
  • Medal Quest: A multi-platform digital project that offered a real-time look at the 2012 London Paralympic Games (a continuation of the work done on Raising the Bar)
  • Ice Warriors: The journey of the U.S. hockey team in winning a gold medal at the 2014 Paralympic Games. Aired on PBS Boston and NBC’s sports channel. Named Best Documentary of the Year at the 2014 Savannah (Ga.) Film Festival

Enter Ken Burns

For the most part, Joukowsky has been a producer on his film projects. But his first official director’s credit came with his recent film, Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War, which was co-directed by legendary filmmaker Ken Burns.

“I never thought of myself as a filmmaker until now, going through the process and being the co-director with Ken Burns,” Joukowsky says. “That became my singular project for three years.”

The 90-minute documentary tells the previously untold saga of Joukowsky’s grandparents, Rev. Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian minister, and Martha Sharp, a social worker, who accepted a mission from the American Unitarian Association to leave their home and their two young children to travel to Prague to help refugees, political dissidents and Jews escape almost certain death during the Holocaust. 

“One of the most exciting things for me is this isn’t just a story about two individuals. This is people I knew and loved dearly,” Joukowsky says. “So, for me this is such a reflection of my gratitude toward my grandparents and my sense of ownership of who they were, to say, ‘Hey, it’s a lot to live up to, but I’m devoted to their mission. I care as well about their values of social justice.’ ” 

Joukowsky was close to his grandmother growing up but only learned of her and Waitstill Sharp’s involvement in saving more than 100 lives when Joukowsky was given a school assignment on moral courage and decided to interview his grandmother. 

“One of the people who got me out of my ‘pity, pity, pity’ story was my grandmother,” Joukowsky says. “She said to me, ‘Don’t feel sorry for yourself. You’ve gotta go out and help other people.’ So she would take me to the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Club, and I would volunteer. It got me out of my own struggle, and I started to see that everyone has their challenges. That kind of mentorship that my grandmother represented really was the beginning of that awakening that I’m still going through.”

For 12 years, Joukowsky and his colleagues researched and put together a film about his grandparents’ dangerous rescue missions and their role in World War II. 

“I had largely finished my version and had called it Two Who Dared,” Joukowsky says. “We didn’t get a distributor. PBS liked the film, but in order to get on PBS you’ve got to raise enough money to pay them to distribute it. You’ve gotta buy shelf space, basically, on their network, and we couldn’t raise that money.” 

But as luck would have it, Joukowsky and Burns, both Hampshire College alumni, connected at an alumni reunion and Burns agreed to watch the film.

“Ken Burns saw the film as a ‘diamond in the rough,’ as he called it,” Joukowsky says. “But he loved the spirit of it and he loved the emotion of it, and it touched his heart. And he called me back and he said, ‘Artemis, you’re not expecting me to say this, but I’m saying I’d like to do this film with you and I will help you.’ And it was like that life-changing moment. You spend your whole life working toward something like this, and then suddenly they say yes.”

For about three years, the pair worked together in secret, meeting every other month to watch and take notes on new cuts of the film. With Burns’ help, they secured actor Tom Hanks to be the voice of Waitstill Sharp. 

“It was an extraordinary experience working with this master storyteller, taking a piece of product you’ve been working on for 12 years and dramatically improve it, and in places where it was already pretty good, leave it alone,” Joukowsky says. “And to have the fun of working with Tom Hanks’ voice and having Tom Hanks be the voice of my grandfather, that was never our vision in the beginning … He [Hanks] personifies the dignity of my grandfather. We aimed high.” 

Their hard work paid off and last September, PBS aired Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War and purchased the rights to rebroadcast it for the next seven years in every PBS market. It has been viewed by more than 3 million people and received 1.1 billion social media hits. In addition, companion school curriculums were developed and distributed to 2,000 schools, and 12 archives that previously hadn’t heard of the Sharps now have Sharp collections that they recognize. Historians in 20 institutions are also working in collaboration with Joukowsky’s team to continue to discover what happened to the families the Sharps helped.

Joukowsky thinks if his grandparents had lived to see his film, they would feel embarrassed. 

“I think they would feel sad for all the people they couldn’t help. They would feel like I hadn’t explained certain things very well, that they could do a better job,” Joukowsky says. “They would feel really proud of me and the whole team for doing our best to reconstruct this from scratch. The collaborative nature of the research has been profoundly inspiring.” 

Any proceeds from the film go to an award Joukowsky established called the Sharp Rescuer Prize for people who are helping refugees. 

“We want to keep pointing toward examples today, not just say this is a great story about the past, just to bring it forth to today and continue to honor people, support people, give them money,” Joukowsky says. “That’s what No Limits Media is all about, extraordinary generosity.”

Future Projects

While Joukowsky no longer sits on the board of directors of No Limits Media, he remains involved in many other ways. 

“We have a group of very dedicated board members who have given their hearts and souls to bringing these conversations out into the world,” Joukowsky says. 

Rothstein and Joukowsky will soon publish a manuscript called The Gift, which Joukowsky says is about those moments of transformation when you realize what a gift it is to be alive and how lucky we are. 

“We all have different gifts, and particularly when we’re disabled and challenged, we find our gifts are often about our attitude of life, our view of reality,” Joukowsky says. “And often disabilities bring us closer to our sense of humanity, and that is a beautiful moment, and terrifying sometimes.”

The pair have about 36 stories written so far and hope to have a total of about 50. Some of the stories are well-known, such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, and others have never been told before.

“What we’d really like to spur is people sharing their gifts of life with each other,” Joukowsky says.

A current film project for No Limits Media is a short documentary called Three Times the Violence, focusing on the high level of violence against people with disabilities. Rothstein says less than 2% of abuse cases involving people with disabilities get prosecuted, and the team hopes their film will raise awareness among the public, doctors, nurses, emergency room workers, teachers and police officers. They hope to get a major celebrity to narrate it and eventually air it on PBS or HBO.

“People who see this [violence] have to report it, they have to step up. They have to do the extra work. They have to bring cases so that people start to realize they’re going to be prosecuted,” Rothstein says. “They know nothing’s going to happen to them, that the person who is vulnerable can’t run after them and that people who see it don’t do anything. We’ve got to find the courage to deal with this issue. There’s so much violence going on that the media can’t focus on violence against people with disabilities. So, somehow we’ve got to get this small film and make it into an hour-long documentary, and we have to tie in schools, tie in hospitals, otherwise it’ll just air and it’ll disappear. It’ll be a blip, and the carnage will go on. It’s a sad commentary, but it can change. People can learn to defend themselves.”

The team is also working with Bloomberg Television on developing a six-part series on the
issue of disability and employment.

“There seems to be a mismatch between the people who are recruiting, the people who are looking and the job placement office. It’s not quite meshing,” Rothstein says. “Both sides have to be capable of overcoming their fears and expressing their anxieties, and that’s what’s not going in the business community right now with people with disabilities. There are Ivy League graduates, Harvard graduates who can’t get jobs. That’s astonishing in 2017.”

Joukowsky has a major business focus on bringing people with disabilities into the workplace and creating accessible places for work.

“I think there’s so many opportunities for people with disabilities right now. And as the workplace becomes more home-based and more computer-based, people with disabilities can not have the challenges of having to travel somewhere and can be more efficient in their own space if it’s designed to be effective,” Joukowsky says. 

Joukowsky also hopes No Limits Media will continue to grow and gain support for its projects, though he admits there are many good films out there that deserve just as much attention.

“We’ve never been very good at raising money for our nonprofit, and that’s one of the things we want to change going forward,” Joukowsky says. “We’d also like to give grants to young filmmakers who are coming up, like Alex Freeman, and get them the equipment they can use to edit, given their disability or challenges. We just want to get people making cool stories about heroic, disabled people and how all of us can make this choice.”

As for Joukowsky’s future films projects, he is always looking for big ideas and small ways he can make an impact while cultivating his grandfather’s notion of “liberation of the human spirit.”

“Dream big, because your dreams come true,” Joukowsky says. “Be positive because no one wants to hear the problems, they just want to see the solution. And if you point out a problem, go for the solution.”

For more information on Joukowsky or No Limits Media, visit nolimitsmedia.org, defyingthenazis.org or artemisjoukowsky.com.

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