Behind the Scenes of ‘Birthright’

If you haven’t seen Sean Mullens’ short film, ‘Birthright,’ watch it now. Then read the comments posted below. Never has a paddling film evoked such eye-watering emotion, let alone a five-minute short that includes just 78 words.

Birthright follows one man’s extraordinary struggle to reach the ocean and go paddling. The paddler is Michael Mitchell, 49, who has been an incomplete C6-7 quadriplegic since a surfing accident at age 17. Focusing his camera’s unblinking eye on Mitchell’s excruciating effort to drag himself and his waveski to the water’s edge, the filmmaker sets up a rush of emotion when Mitchell finally catches a wave and accelerates down the face. For that fleeting moment, he’s completely free.

This powerful film has become a Web phenomenon, garnering more than 160,000 Vimeo downloads in the first month alone. While the dialogue barely extends beyond the opening line – “Part of the water, and my draw to it, is it’s a birthright”-the feelings it stirs are impossible to convey in words. We spend 10 minutes with filmmaker and subject for their take on the production.

- Eugene Buchanan

Michael: I broke my neck at the same spot where the video was shot. It’s ironic that we ended up there, but it’s where I always go.


Sean: I shoot a lot of music videos, comedy dialogue and feature-length documentaries on everything from the genocide in Darfur to punk rock drag queens. Stuff like Birthright is a way to break out from traditional commercial work.


Michael: I use a custom waveski designed by Bill Riedel of Stretch Boards in Santa Cruz. He broke his neck at the exact same place I did, and has gone out of his way to make things happen for me. I’ve been paddling since the early ’80s. A good friend taught me basic kayaking skills. He helped me realize my dreams.


Sean: The first time I saw Michael I was walking down Stinson Beach [north of San Francisco] and saw some guy pulling himself out of the water. I wanted to help him, but he didn’t need any. I introduced myself, and it turns out we were neighbors.


Michael: Each component of going out for a paddle is a significant amount of work. There’s no one easy part to it. How do you slide down the beach while dragging a kayak with a 10-inch skeg? You don’t. So I put the skeg on a short leash and then slide it in once I’m out there. I laugh at what I have to go through to get to the water. It’s hilarious, really.


Sean: He took me through everything from the moment he broke his neck on up to everything afterward. It’s an amazing story. But at its core, the essence was this moment from him not being on the water to being on it-this place where we all feel free-and the struggle it takes to get there.


Michael: My disability is so obvious in my day-to-day life. But once I’m kayaking out in the lineup, people have no clue about it. I can get out there and be natural. Whatever encumbrances I have are stripped away. Surfers drop in on me and give me shit and I love it. But I get their respect when they see me crawl across the rocks afterward.


Sean: I always knew it was pretty special, but I didn’t think it would get much attention. It’s about struggle in general and overcoming obstacles, and that’s what resonates with people. It’s the most visceral expression of human spirit I’ve ever filmed.


Michael: In a project like this, you’re putting yourself at the liberty of the artist and you’re a little vulnerable. But Sean nailed it. I love how he stripped it down. People want to make things easier for me and take a piece of my burden. But to tell the story properly, Sean couldn’t do that; he had to stand back and capture this struggle.


Sean: It’s one of the most challenging things I’ve ever filmed, from the standpoint of not wanting to intervene. I know Michael is independent, but it’s difficult not to help. When you’re on the other side of the camera you feel a certain level of detachment from your subject, but rarely do you want to put your camera down and help.


Michael: The video doesn’t show what I do to get out of the water, which is even harder. I’ve learned subtle ways to stay with my kayak, but if it gets washed to shore then I have to swim to where it is, which often means groveling and rolling in the water on shore. Attitude is everything. You never want to take anything for granted, especially when it comes to judging people.


Click here to see Birthright.

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