Street art. Gee-whiz tech. An indomitable human spirit. A commercial director’s eye for details. Getting Up, a documentary about how graffiti artist Tempt One gets back to making art after being stricken with a disease that leaves him virtually paralyzed, is an exceptional story crafted into an exceptional film.
Tony “Tempt One” Quan is one of the legends of the graffiti scene in Los Angeles. His lettering style is admired by fans and fellow artists, and his sense of community make him one of the lynchpins of the graffiti world. So when he was diagnosed in 2003 as having ALS, the debilitating condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease that leaves its victims paralyzed, it was a blow to the graffiti world.
Enter Mick Ebeling, entrepreneur, philanthropist and street art fan. When Ebeling hears about Quan’s condition, he decides to give some money to the Tempt One ALS Foundation and learn some more about the man. This begins a journey for the two men, with Mick working to recruit technologists and craftsmen for a project that with the goal of getting Tempt back to doing what he does: rock fresh and funky styles on walls.
Ebeling produced this documentary and his wife Caskey directed this picture. For a hair’s breath of seconds as Mick Ebeling enters the story, a fear crept over me that this was going to be some sort of Roman triumph of philanthropy. That fear was quickly put to rest by two factors. The first is Mick Ebeling. While he is critical as an agent of change in the story, the documentary is never about him. Mick may get screen time, but every beat of this story is Tempt’s.
The second factor is director Caskey Ebeling, whose skill as a storyteller has been honed through years of short film and commercial work. Ebeling uses the full palate of the modern documentary: found footage, interviews, and animated bridging sequences to create a narrative rhythm more engaging than most of what Hollywood can manage. It is not easy to live so close to a story– at one point the Graffiti Research Lab (GRL), a collective of artists and technologists, take over the Ebeling’s house– and retain the ability to tell the story in a way that engages someone who wasn’t there.
The sequence with the GRL marks the point where the story pivots from personal medical struggle into a kind of techno-art science thriller. Can a group of open source hackers build a device that helps a paralyzed man paint again? What happens when one of the world’s largest PC manufactures gets involved?
The fruit of the Ebeling/GRL collaboration is the EyeWriter, which was named as one of the top inventions of 2010 by Time magazine. The EyeWriter consists of a small camera attached to a pair of modified sunglasses. The camera track’s Tempt’s eye movements, and translates those into actions on a computer screen. Mick Ebeling introduced the device and the basics of Tempt’s story in a TED talk.
At it’s best technology and the principles of good design are extensions of the human will and spirit. Nothing speaks to the power of the human spirit quite like a man diagnosed with a disease that usually kills those stricken with it within two to three years not only holding on after seven years, but exerting such a passion for his craft that multiple communities come together to find a way to help him realize that passion.
When they do those results are shared with the world; the EyeWriter technology has already been adapted to help other paralysis victims overcome their limitations. Screening this film felt like a reaffirmation of what is best in humanity: the unwillingness to give up in the face of tragic circumstances, the ingenuity artists and engineers can deploy in the name of a good cause, and above all the importance of community.
UPDATE:Reuters reports that Getting Up won the 2012 Slamdance audience award.
Getting Up: The Tempt One Story. Directed by Caskey Ebeling, premiered as part of the 2012 Slamdance Film Festival. For more information about Tempt One, Mick Ebeling, and the Eyewriter check out the links above and Ebeling’s Not Impossible Foundation.