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Child's Play 

Local documentary examines a loving family


Synopsis: Emma's Gifts is a documentary that centers on Emma Corrigan, a little girl who was born with Down syndrome, and the various ways in which her family -- mom Mitzi, dad Michael, and twin sister Abigale -- have not only educated themselves (and others) about the child's condition but have also embraced and even cherished her differences.

Guiding Lights: Mitzi Corrigan, Emma's mother and one of the film's producers; Susan B. Harden, Mitzi's co-producer and the person who came up with the idea for the film; John Disher, director.

Budget: "We had hopes of raising about $75,000," explains Mitzi Corrigan. "That would have enabled us to pay people a decent wage. Needless to say, that did not happen. But we did hold a kick-off fundraiser in September 2001 -- a wine tasting and auction held at Indievision -- and we raised about $14,000. That was beyond our expectations, and it certainly gave us enough money to get some momentum in the filming. We also got a small equipment grant from the Arts & Science Council, which helped us purchase our digital camera."

Location Shooting: Except for footage filmed at the National Down Syndrome Conference in Nashville, TN, the entire film was shot in Charlotte. Familiar venues include the Nature Museum and the Bayou Kitchen.

The Project's Genesis: Harden first proposed the idea of making a movie about Emma when, as the mother of one of Emma's classmates, she visited the class and noticed that, along with Abigale, Emma was the only kid in the class who could read. "Susan has her PhD in education and even she admitted that she had brought in some negative stereotypes in terms of what she expected from Emma," explains Corrigan, whose full-time profession is as a casting director for her own company, Corrigan & Johnston Casting, Inc. (co-owned by Paige Johnston). "Susan told me that she thought Emma's story should be told since educators really needed to see the many possibilities that a child with special needs could add to an educational environment. She didn't know that I was connected to the film industry at the time, and that once I said OK, the ball would start rolling full speed ahead!"

The Filming Stage: Emma and Abigale are now five years old, but the film covers their lives from birth. "We had a lot of home video footage that we used in the film to cover the birth to 2-year-old phase," relates Corrigan. "We had no idea that this footage would ever turn into a documentary; we were just your average obnoxious parents shooting tons of video of their beautiful children. Once we decided to actually do a professional documentary, we hired John Disher as the director/cinematographer and the rest of the footage was done professionally. But so much of it was much harder than I ever anticipated. John practically lived with us for two years; having our family under a microscope was very hard. You have to shoot tons of footage to find the story, and there's no script to follow. It's an enormous undertaking in general, but especially in the editing stage."

The Future Of The Film: "We received notification just last week that Emma's Gifts was accepted in two different film festivals," enthuses Corrigan. "One is called the Sprout Film Festival, which is held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC ( The other is the International Family Film Festival in Santa Clarita, CA ( I also plan on attending conventions to try to get it distributed, such as the National Down Syndrome Conference and the National Down Syndrome Society conventions this summer. And the video is also for sale on our website. I think our main audience will be parents of children with special needs and early educators, but I'm hoping that it will find its place with the general public. I think that's the audience that really needs to see it."

Screening Info: Emma's Gifts will be shown as part of The Light Factory's Factory Films Series at 7:30pm Thursday, April 10, in the McGlohon Theatre at Spirit Square. Tickets cost $7 at the door. For more information, call 704-492-0020, or go online to

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