Grace Fisher’s positivity has served the young lady well over her two decades of life, as she honed her musical abilities on guitar and piano, while dreaming of becoming a composer.
“My mom always said that [even] as a young girl, I’ve been blessed with a happy outlook on anything,” Fisher told me recently of her optimistic attitude.
Incredibly, Fisher has maintained that same poise and equanimity even after the extremely rare disease acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) struck on her seventeenth birthday, robbing her first of the use of her limbs and then of her ability to breathe without the help of machines.
But there is no hint of bitterness in her voice now, no self-pity as the reality for Fisher and her family has been forever altered.
“I think a lot of it is my family and my community—everyone around me,” Fisher said of not sinking into hopelessness despite her fate. “I’ve been really blessed with the people that I’m surrounded with. I really think that has made all the difference.”
Fisher’s unlikely, and incredibly inspiring, story is related in the documentary “Amazing Grace,” which premiered in January at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) not far from Fisher’s home, and was part of the lineup last week at the hybrid online-in person Bentonville Film Festival (BFF) in Arkansas.
“Amazing Grace” director Lynn Montgomery had known the Fisher family for years. Her daughter was friends with Grace and was even a guest at the star-crossed birthday party where Grace developed back pain that developed into sudden paralysis. Montgomery’s daughter knew something was wrong when Grace’s grandmother brought out board games, but the guest of honor was nowhere to be seen.
“My daughter called me and said, ‘Mom, I don’t know what’s going on, but Gracie isn’t here and it’s her party,’” Montgomery, on a conference call with Fisher and myself, said. Indeed, even though the young lady was at the hospital, no one at the party knew what was going on.
Montgomery, a producer and screenwriter, began filming the Fisher family as Grace went through rehabilitation and adjusted to a new reality bound to a wheelchair. Fisher said that the two families having already had a close bond allowed her to trust the filmmaker to tell her story in a respectful fashion.
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“I had to realize [I wasn’t] going to have any privacy [with] the cameras,” Fisher said. “It never felt like I was really being filmed since we knew Lynn so well and felt confident with [how] she was going to portray our family on screen.”
On Montgomery’s first day of production, Fisher’s mother Debbie invited Montgomery to film the changing of her daughter’s tracheotomy tube, which needs to be replaced monthly.
“I had no idea what that entailed. It was such an intimate and invasive moment and procedure,” Montgomery said. “The fact that they welcomed me to film that, I [knew] that nothing was off-limits.”
(This even extended to intra-family dynamics. Debbie, sharing on camera that the care of her daughter has placed a strain, however understandable, on her marriage to Grace’s father, Bill, breaks down in one of the film’s most searing moments.)
In less than an hour of screen time, Montgomery shows Fisher not only adapting to such tasks as feeding herself without the use of her limbs, but then, incredibly, getting back into music. Though deprived of her ability to play guitar or piano any longer, with the help of a computer and a stick she directs with just her mouth, Fisher has continued to write her own music.
As seen in “Amazing Grace,” Fisher earns some rabid fans, even Justin Hurvitz, the Academy Award-winning composer behind “La La Land.” Fisher said her correspondence with Hurvitz began when she made a video containing some of his music from “La La Land,” and wrote to ask his permission.
“That same day, he said, of course you can play this at your show,” Fisher said. “After that he was like, if you have any composition questions, you can totally reach out and ask. And he would respond with full-on videos of him just talking to the computer.”
In the documentary, Hurvitz visits Fisher at home in Santa Barbara County and, with an unforced smile, compliments her composition, “Waltz of the Waves,” which was performed in public for the first time on December 22nd.
But the challenges facing the production were not only those of the star, but also for the filmmaker. Montgomery said that only three days after filming the “Waltz of the Waves” performance, she began experiencing her own bouts of respiratory problems. She described her symptoms as being similar to what people experience with covid-19, but in Montgomery’s case, there seemed to be no underlying cause.
“I would see Gracie get up every day and make music, so she was my healing inspiration,” Montgomery said. “[If] I am strong enough to get out of bed for an hour, I’m going to Gracie’s house.”
Because of Montgomery’s health woes and the quickly approaching deadline for SBIFF, Montgomery needed to expedite post-production on “Amazing Grace.” Even though its running time is just under an hour, she said there was so much more that could have been included.
But what she does include has been inspiring audiences on the festival circuit this year, at SBIFF and last week’s BFF in Arkansas.
“People take away something fundamental from this movie that really is life-changing,” Montgomery said. “Even in this terrible time of pandemic, there’s something about art and music and beauty that we can all aspire to. We can live within that grace. Every one of us has the ability to do that, whatever our journey is.”
Fisher is now studying composition at the University of California, Santa Barbara campus, and is also working on a Christmas music show that, given the realities of 2020, will be pre-recorded and then broadcast on a local TV station. She also counsels other young people in health scenarios similar to her own, and her charity, the Grace Fisher Foundation, aims to bring art to those who might not heretofore have gotten to experience live music in person.
“I want other kids with a disability [to know] that there is still hope after something like this happens,” she said. “In the moment it really seems like the end of the world, but it does get better if you’re willing to work with what you do have.
“It does get better. Yeah.”
For information on future screenings visit https://www.amazinggracedocumentary.com/