Aspen Film Academy Screenings: ‘Gleason,’ an intimate, inspirational story of life after ALS | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Film Academy Screenings: ‘Gleason,’ an intimate, inspirational story of life after ALS

Steve Gleason cemented his place as a New Orleans sports legend and post-Katrina civic hero a decade ago when he blocked a punt in the opening minutes of the New Orleans Saints' first game back in the Superdome after the hurricane.

But in the years since, he has transcended his on-the-field glory. Gleason was diagnosed with ALS in 2011, at age 34. Shortly after the terminal diagnosis, he learned that his wife, Michel Varisco, was pregnant. Gleason picked up a camera and began filming daily, five-minute video diaries for their child-to-be.

The astounding documentary "Gleason" uses those videos — and unfettered access to Gleason and his family through his first years with the disease — to craft an intimate and unflinching portrait.

Among the most acclaimed documentaries of 2016, "Gleason" has been short-listed for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. It screens Thursday at Aspen Film's Academy Screenings.

It's a powerful, personal piece of filmmaking that strings together Gleason's video blogs for his future child (Varisco gave birth to their son, Rivers, less than a year after Gleason's diagnosis). It follows Gleason on an expedition to Alaska in his final able-bodied days, through a difficult reconciliation with his father and on his mission to help ALS patients.

We see his condition deteriorate, see the strain on Michel and we see him struggle emotionally. But along with that personal story, we see Gleason fight to improve the eye-tracking technology that allows people with ALS to speak, and we see him battle in the U.S. Congress to pass legislation restoring Medicaid and Medicare funding for such devices, and see how his Team Gleason foundation is helping people with ALS live fuller lives.

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"It's my belief that most of the things ALS takes from you, technology can give back," he says in the film.

There wasn't a dry eye in the house after an early screening of the film at Spotlight Health festival at the Aspen Institute in June. Varisco said in a post-screening Q&A that the only initial goal for Gleason's video blogs was to tell Rivers who his father was, knowing that he would soon lose his ability to speak.

"We had no idea we'd be sitting at the Aspen Institute or at Sundance or anything — the main goal was to share himself with Rivers," Varisco said. "So we felt the more that was filmed the better. We didn't have an end goal in our minds, it was just the more the better."

Early on, Gleason had asked filmmakers David Lee and Ty Minton-Small to document his life with ALS. They collected more than 1,200 hours of footage, which they eventually turned over to director Clay Tweel.

A statue outside of the Superdome now honors Gleason, his 2006 blocked punt, and its importance to the battered city's recovery from the storm. But Gleason's path since his diagnosis — as captured in the extraordinary "Gleason" — is far more remarkable than anything he did on a football field.

atravers@aspentimes.com

If You Go …

What: ‘Gleason’ at Academy Screenings, presented by Aspen Film

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Thursday, Dec. 22, 5:30 p.m.

How much: $20/general admission; $15/Aspen Film members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com