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In 2013, the parents of a 5-year-old recovering from leukemia asked the Greater Bay Area Make-A-Wish Foundation to help him become a superhero for a day. The event’s announcement went viral, thousands of volunteers and well-wishers flooded the streets of San Francisco, and millions more tuned in online — all recounted in Dana Nachman‘s documentary Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World. Prior to the film’s Slamdance world premiere, Julia Roberts‘ representatives announced that she’s attached to produce and star as one of the event’s key organizers in a feature film version of Batkid’s story. Whether that development will drive theatrical response for this documentary or simply seal the deal for small-screen opportunities, this project might not be the last we’ll hear of the young boy’s heroic exploits.
The national Make-A-Wish Foundation, established to provide terminally ill children with unique experiences, has granted thousands of “wishes” over the past 35 years. When the parents of Miles Scott, a young boy from rural Tule Lake, Calif., who is suffering from leukemia, contact the organization’s regional office to help him become Batman, the chapter begins planning an event that will make him “Batkid” for a day. A shy, imaginative boy with superhero aspirations, Miles endured months of hospital and follow-up treatment and medication for his condition.
Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area executive director Patricia Wilson set the date for Nov. 15, 2013, and began pulling together Miles’ request by calling on former stunt double, acrobat and inventor EJ Johnston and his wife, Sue, an amateur trapeze artist, to help conceive and execute the plan. At first the pair envisioned a modest event in a public park that could involve a few dozen volunteers and friends of the family. But when Wilson put out a call for volunteers on her organization’s Facebook page, thousands of people responded, her first clue that this would be no ordinary wish-fulfillment.
Eventually the scope grows to include Johnston as Batman and Sue as a “damsel in distress” to be rescued by Miles, as well as amateur performers playing familiar villains The Riddler and The Penguin. San Francisco Chief of Police Greg Suhr and Mayor Ed Lee take small roles as well, and Lamborghini owners volunteer their cars as Batmobile stand-ins. Dozens of other volunteers assist with logistics, costuming, stunt training and social media outreach.
Miles’ parents, Nick and Natalie, were responsible for keeping their son in the dark until the day of the event, then supporting the little guy as he saved the city from impending evil. “Everyone said yes on this project,” Wilson recalls at one point in the doc, far exceeding even her expectations as the event goes viral and an estimated 25,000 people turn out to cheer Miles on. Even Hans Zimmer gets involved, composing a custom score for the Batkid, while President Obama checks in with a supportive video message for Miles.
Nachman, director of several previous Emmy-winning documentaries, initially missed the entire Batkid phenomenon, coming aboard the project well after the fact. Fortunately, the Make-A-Wish Foundation had hired production company John Crane Films to shoot the spectacle, so Nachman was left to create the setup and the framing material around the event itself. Interviews with Miles and his family, foundation staff and key participants fill in the narrative, along with fairly cogent graphic novel-style animation to bridge substantial gaps in footage, all attractively packaged by editor and co-writer Kurt Kuenne.
As the star of the show, young Miles comes into his own surprisingly fast, adopting his Batkid persona and playing right along with the Batman and supervillain enactors in a highly entertaining, semi-scripted scenario that goes off mostly according to plan. In addition to throngs of well-wishers, social media platforms attracted an unheard-of 2 billion people posting and tweeting Batkid-related messages, tags and photos.
Certainly there’s never been anything like it in the Make-A-Wish Foundation’s or San Francisco’s civic history, and as a viral, live-interaction Internet event it set a new standard. Whether Miles will remember the day exactly in the manner it’s portrayed in the film has yet to be determined, but for millions of people worldwide, it’s likely to remain one of the more notable experiences in recent collective memory.
Production company: KTF Films
Director: Dana Nachman
Screenwriters: Dana Nachman, Kurt Kuenne
Producers: Liza Meak, Dana Nachman
Executive Producers: Ian Reinhard, John Crane
Directors of photography: Don Hardy, Naomi Ture
Editor: Kurt Kuenne
Music: Dave Tweedie
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
No rating, 91 minutes
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