Local filmmaker redefines ‘disabled’ with documentary

Pictured, from left: Filmmaker Steven Barber, athlete Geoffrey Erickson, John Paul DeJoria of Paul Mitchell Systems, and athletes Edwin Figueroa and Chris Kohler. Barber made a documentary on the three athletes who compete in wheel chair races, including a grueling 267-mile race throughout Alaska. Photo by Tamara Henry

The documentary “Unbeaten” follows five parapalegic wheelchair racers on a 267-mile monster race through Alaska.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Telling the tales of the underdog seems to be a specialty of local filmmaker Steven C. Barber. Last year, the local documentarian assembled a team to tell the story of Leon Cooper, the Malibu vet who fought to honor his fellow soldiers who died in the World War II battle of Tarawa. This year, Barber is profiling some of America’s most accomplished and unrecognized athletes in his documentary, “Unbeaten.”

The film follows five paraplegic wheelchair racers on a 267-mile monster race through the mountainous passes of Denali National Park and Preserve, from Fairbanks to Anchorage, Alaska, in a journey that challenges not only the determination of the athletes themselves, but the world’s perception of what is accomplishable by someone who is “disabled.”

“I didn’t start out thinking this was going to be some big inspiring film,” Barber said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “I got to talking with this guy in a wheelchair, Geoff Erickson, who fixed the brakes on my buddy’s car and found out he was training for this big race. He needed sponsorship and I said I’d see what I could do to help.”

Barber went to watch Erickson participate in a race in San Diego and met a couple of other wheelchair racers, Chris Kohler and Edwin Figueroa. He was floored by the power and excitement of the competition and immediately went to see an old friend, Malibu philanthropist and CEO of John Paul Mitchell Systems, John Paul DeJoria.

“Like 99 percent of the American public, I didn’t know anything about disabled athletes,” Barber said. “When I told J.P. about the race, he said right off he would sponsor a team. After I started shooting some footage I thought would be good for marketing, I realized that there might be a documentary here.”

The athletes use specially designed wheelchairs and “hand cycles” to cover punishing miles of road race. While in Alaska, Barber met elite racers Oscar “Oz” Sanchez, the current Paralympic gold medalist and world’s fastest hand cyclist, and Alejandro Albor, a Paralympic silver medalist. Their stories became integral in the film as Barber ended up transitioning from Alaska to Sanchez’s and Albor’s quest to win medals in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

In Alaska, the mountainous scenery is as stunning as the mental discipline of the 31 athletes and Barber knew his footage was gold. He went back to Mitchell, saying, “I think we got something more here than a YouTube video,” and proposed developing a documentary. Mitchell immediately wrote a check. Barber then hit his Rolodex, showing the same dogged tenacity in securing funding for his documentary as he did convincing talk show host Larry King into featuring Leon Cooper on his evening broadcast.

“Out of a thousand billionaires on this planet, I managed to get six of them to contribute to this film,” Barber said. “I got money from such diverse sources-Steve Forbes, Eli Broad, Pamela Anderson, Cher. They all opened up their checkbooks. I even got one big movie star from Malibu to donate, but he said he’d kill me if I publicized his name.”

Barber was riding high. Then, the economy went bust. Even though the Paralypmic team members were invited to the White House for recognition by George and Laura Bush, the project sat on the shelf for a year, while Barber pursued his documentary on Cooper, which aired on the Military Channel last year and was followed by some high profile press, such as their appearance on Larry King’s show last December. Out of the blue, Barber got a call from Polaris Media Group and ultimate producing partner, Greg Strom.

“They saw the Larry King appearance and signed on,” Barber said. “Then [county music star] Clint Black offered a song and Dan Aykroyd offered to narrate. It all came together.”

Despite the daunting tab of $35,000 to screen a film for a week in Los Angeles to qualify for Oscar consideration, Barber managed to do so and is in the running for a Best Documentary nod at next year’s Academy Awards ceremony. They screened “Unbeaten” at the Sundance Film Festival in January to great acclaim.

In a phone interview from a Bahamian vacation, DeJoria said of Barber, “Steven’s original idea was to take a bunch of people who certainly have challenges and show how very ‘abled’ they are. Two hundred and seventy-five miles? These guys are heroes! And people need to hear that message.”

Last month Barber was notified by Col. Norvell Coots, commander of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, that they will show “Unbeaten” at a special premiere for injured service members and their families, as well as give “Unbeaten” awards to three soldiers who exemplify the courage of overcoming disability. Rep. Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, who is in a wheelchair, is staging a premiere on Capitol Hill for his congressional colleagues.

“My movie is not about a bunch of disabled people,” Barber said. “It’s about incredible athletes who say, ‘OK, I lost my legs, but you go on.’ You get busy living or you get busy dying.”

Sanchez was a Marine Corps veteran of multiple tours in 2001 when he was involved in a motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed. Pulling himself out of post-injury depression, he took a business administration degree from San Diego State University and started training with a hand cycle. In the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, he took gold and bronze medals.

“The Alaska race really shows you what you can accomplish after hitting a wall,” Sanchez said. “Hopefully, movies like Steven’s will awaken some awareness in this country of a whole class of athletes that are ignored.”

Sanchez traveled this week to race in Dubai and to continue his motivational speaking tour. Barber headed off to Vancouver to promote the Paralympic Winter Games (which traditionally follow the Olympic Games).

“My goal is to raise the profile of the ‘differently-abled’ athlete,” Barber said. “When you watch them race, there’s nothing disabled about it.”

More information about “Unbeaten” can be found online at www.umbeatenthemovie.com