When 21-year-old Jake Luoma jokingly says, “I’m kind of the star of this whole movie” – it’s true.
“Life in Strides,” a film depicting Luoma’s life as a decorated therapeutic horseback rider with autism competing in his first non-therapeutic competition, was produced by seven students in GW’s Documentary Center and will premiere Oct. 14 at the Awareness Festival in Los Angeles. The short documentary, which won an Award of Merit from the national Best Shorts Competition last month, will be shown at three other film festivals in October.
Producer, writer and editor Patrick Foust, a current political and strategic communications student, created “Life in Strides” with six other students in the documentary program. The GW Documentary Center’s six-month intensive program allows filmmakers like Foust to explore documentary filmmaking as a part of a graduate degree.
Foust said he chose Lift Me Up, a Virginia therapeutic horseback riding center, as the focus of his documentary because of its proximity to campus and unique subject matter. The film initially featured multiple families before the students decided to focus on Luoma and his mother, Joanne Luoma.
“Joanne and Jake have a connection like no other,” Foust said. “Seeing their love for each other was very clearly the true focus of the film.”
Joanne Luoma said that she always tells her son that you have to put in work to get better at anything you do. That message is what she said she hopes viewers take away from the film, and Jake Louma agreed.
“I think that Mom’s right that you just improve on what you’re doing and you can get better and better,” Jake Luoma said.
Jake Luoma’s mother takes center stage in the film as she helps with his horsebacking riding career. She is always by her son’s side as he practices riding at Lift Me Up.
“Therapeutic riding has been wonderful for Jake – not just physically, but in all regards,” Joanne Luoma said. “It’s helped him with just talking to people, interacting with other people, following directions and processing them. He’s improved and it’s all through horseback.”
Aside from the daily grind of riding practice, “Life in Strides” also captures the daily life of the Luoma family. After four months of research and learning in the classroom at the Documentary Center, the crew spent one month filming with the Luoma family and one month editing.
Joanne Luoma said the filming process was more intensive than she thought it would be when the family agreed to participate in the project, but they enjoyed working with the students.
“We just started thinking of them as part of the family but with a camera. They just blended in and you stopped thinking about it,” Joanne Luoma said.
The six-month course is led by Nina Seavey, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, and develops skills for the first four months. The last two months include filming and editing the documentary and end in two short films created by the class of 15.
The hands-on element of the documentary allowed a more personal relationship between the Luomas and the filmmakers. Joanne Luoma said one of the best parts of filming was seeing her son become friends with the students they worked with.
Luoma is a champion in the highest levels of the Therapeutic Riding Association of Virginia, but the documentary captures him as he prepares to compete in his first non-therapeutic competition. At another horse show on Oct. 22, Jake will participate in the most advanced level offered by the Therapeutic Riding Association of Virginia: the canter level.
Jake Luoma’s stress triggers include tardiness, so in a scene that takes place after his niece’s birthday party begins late, Jake begins cursing and getting upset and retreats to his room to cool off with his microphone still on. The scene and audio with his outburst was later included in the film.
“When they included my meltdown, I was a little embarrassed about that,” Jake said.
Despite Jake admitting he was abashed by one of his actions included in the film, both he and his mother agreed that they were glad they participated.
Joanne Luoma added that she’s glad the film sheds a light on the reality of living with autism. Although the family has challenges, she said she encourages her son to believe he can do anything.
“We tell Jake that we don’t believe in a disability at all. You don’t let a disability to be an excuse for anything,” Joanne said. “Everybody has challenges to overcome and you just work with what you have.”