Special Ed at Hot Docs: Winnipeg, spelling, and stop motion

Reviewed in this essay: Special Ed, directed by John Paskievich, Canada, 2013 at Hot Docs 2013.

Director John Paskievich’s documentary Special Ed follows Ed Ackerman, a filmmaker who creates short stop-motion films that help kids spell. He loves words, enjoys puns, and his old boat-like car is decorated with colourful-painted letters. Then his life is suddenly turned upside down.

The first obstacle we see is when Ackerman is being fired from the National Film Board, which seems to trigger the events that come later. Because of his loss of salary he has no money to renovate the three derelict houses he recently purchased. His plan is to convert them into film studios, which he would ultimately give to his three grown children, but the city of Winnipeg is constantly trying to tear down the houses because of bylaw transgressions, so Ed runs for parliament and mayor, all the while trying to save his properties.

Paskievich says Ackerman gets a kick out of having a lot of balls in the air because he cannot focus on one thing. While he is trying to renovate the houses he is also trying to make his city a better and safer place, but he can’t keep juggling all these balls, and they eventually come crashing down. “He just keeps going, bad things can happen to him but he just keeps on going,” says Paskievich, “he just keeps bouncing back with this optimism, but it’s a false optimism.”

The film allows you to see for yourself just what makes Ackerman so special. Don’t let the trailer’s circus music fool you: this film is heartbreaking. Paskievich provides an intimate and sometimes uncomfortable look into two difficult years of an inspiring and wayward man’s life.

 Special Ed screens once more at this year’s Hot Docs, Saturday May 4 (9:15) at Innis Town Hall.