The road to Recovery
UB student films documentary of friend's second chance at life
Matthew Faulkner will never remember what happened on March 2, 2009.
Though the day's events are not stored in his memory, he has a way to replay them on a screen.
After being in a traumatic car accident, Faulkner was left in coma for six weeks. Doctors said he had almost no chance of survival. One hundred and three days later, though, Faulkner miraculously walked across the stage of his graduation from West Seneca West Senior High School.
Ryan Monolopolus, a senior media study major and Faulkner's long-time friend, saw this recovery period as an opportunity to create something inspiring for all those who knew Faulkner. He wanted to bring Faulkner's personal experience to a larger scale; that's when Monolopolus' road to Recovery began.
Monolopolus discussed the idea of a doing a small project with Faulkner, documenting the different stages of his recovery. Before they knew it, their small seed bloomed into a full feature film: Recovery.
"It started out as a project for class, and then when I started to do the interviews and realized how much there was to this, I realized there was something more deserving of it," Monolopolus said.
Upon learning how to walk and talk again after the accident, Monolopolus was inspired by the way Faulkner was able to respond to questions.
"[Faulkner] was a good subject to have on film, and that's always the hard thing to find," Monolopolus said.
Monolopolus, interested in documentary filmmaking, is always trying to "do things big," he said. He decided this small assignment didn't do Faulkner's story justice and looked toward making the film bigger.
After getting large-scale distribution for the film, the short documentary project for school turned into a two-year production cycle. The film received community-wide support. Erie County Medical Center, Sisters Hospital, Sisters of Charity Hospital and Mercy Flight of Western NY donated their time, support and even helicopters for the film.
"A lot of people knew Matt ... it really affected the community at large when the original event happened," Monolopolus said. "The whole idea was that there was already such a huge base of people affected by this event. I figured it would be interesting to make a film uniting all of these different people that were affected by Matt."
Monolopolus recognized the medical perspective of Faulkner's accident, the perspective from family and friends, the first responders and the religious side that was accentuated in the film.
"All of these different parties were involved and this film synthesizes them together in one cohesive narrative," Monolopolus said.
The film came as a challenge to Monolopolus, as it was his first feature film. He had been working on a separate narrative film in Buffalo for about two years and started his own media production company nearly a year and a half ago.
Without boasting, Monolopolus said he was equipped to take on the challenge through his experience with different types of film work.
"I think I have at least somewhat of a good sense of what makes a cohesive narrative and what makes things work," Monolopolus said.
Monolopolus crafted this film as if it were his own child - sleepless nights without leaving much time for anything else, other than filming and editing.
"I think that's what [you should do]: You should suffer for your art," Monolopolus said.
The film received virtually all positive reviews, according to Monolopolus. Monolopolus said Artvoice and Buffalo First reviewed the film, and he received a lot of positive feedback from them. Monolopolus was overjoyed when his past professor Dien Vo, a mentor throughout his life, reviewed the film.
"From my own experience, Recovery is the most ambitious project I've seen produced by an undergraduate," Vo said. "This is true of the scope of the film's production as well as its subject matter and thematic interests."
Faulkner agrees with Vo that Monolopolus is very talented when it comes to documentary filmmaking and was impressed with how the entire piece came together.
"He really put a lot of thought into creating a moving account of my recovery from traumatic brain injury by piecing together many different perspectives," Faulkner said.
Monolopolus has been interested in film for quite some time now, and he owes his continuation with the film program to his favorite professor, Vo, after taking his Basic Video class.
"[Vo] has been my mentor since the onset of my college career here [at UB]," Monolopolus said. "I was pretty close to leaving the university, and going through his class really let me see that there is something to the program here."
Monolopolus views film as a way to create relationships, the most important thing in his life. He believes that one's relationships and experiences are the most important thing and there is no better way to bring the personal experience to a large scale than film.
"Media is powerful; media affects us in every way and in so many ways that we don't even realize," Monolopolus said.
He believes the media has the power to reshape ideas, feelings, thinking and thought patterns. Monolopolus referred to a quote by Alfred Hitchcock, English film director and producer: "It can make people whole again."
Monolopolus is passionate about film and believes it is a beautiful art form and is something that can offer an escape from the world for a short time but also be so "indexical" to our relationship with the world, he said.
Joe Kirchmyer, a local Buffalo writer, teamed up with Faulkner shortly after the film went into production to write a book about Faulkner's recovery. The book is titled Most Likely to Survive. Monolopolus said the book and the documentary show a lot of support for each other, though there is variation between the two.
"[The film] is drastically different than the book," Monolopolus said. "The film is borderline experimental in a lot of the ways - it combines reenactments and a lot of in-depth interviews with Matt."
Monolopolus and Faulkner go back to a lot of the locations the film refers to, in order to create a sense of surrealism while talking about various incidents. The two were able to do reenactments of the helicopter during the Mercy Flight, as well as scenes in the hospital.
"A lot of it is really expressionistic, and I think that's what is interesting about this documentary," Monolopolus said. "It's artful in the way it tells its story, which I think a lot of documentaries lack - that artful ability to expressionistically tell a story."
The film has received a lot of coverage throughout the Buffalo area, and Monolopolus is headed toward international film festivals with Recovery.
"I think it's clear that Ryan really wanted to try something different with this film, and it shows in how Recovery is bold in its willingness to experiment with documentary film form," Vo said. "In carefully selected parts, the film goes back and forth in its stylistic treatment of Matt's story. The film has both extremes of feeling like a conventional documentary while also being highly stylized, moody and cinematic in many parts."
Monolopolus encourages other filmmakers and students to go for whatever they believe in. He reminds students that nothing is ever that hard, and that at the end of the day, if you really want to do it, you can do it.
"It's all about sacrifice," Monolopolus said. "You have to decide what you want to do and how much work you want to put into something."
Monolopolus put his time and money into the film and it's starting to pay off. He said people often have trouble wrapping their heads around things, but once they focus on what they want to do, they must accept that it may take two years to actually get it done.
This is the longest production Monolopolus has completed; the experience is really rewarding, he said.
"I personally believe if you're really going to be serious about what you're doing, you should really try to create something big," Monolopolus said. "Don't just fulfill your class requirements, fulfill your intrinsic ability. "
Monolopolus said the media study department doesn't require a senior thesis, so students should take it upon themselves to do what they want to do. He wants to tell Matthew Faulkner's story.