Joe Stramondo and his wife, Leah, could have been any other 30-something couple hoping for a child as they sat answering questions in a doctor’s office. They had miscarried once before, when Leah was seven weeks along, and they were desperate for a baby; Leah eagerly, if nervously, answered questions about her health and life as Joe sat by her side. When the subject of her height came up, however, her husband grabbed the opportunity to lighten the mood.
‘Three eleven and a half,’ Leah told the doctor.
‘The half’s real important – make sure you get that on there,’ joked Joe, who is shorter than his wife.
Because both husband and wife, who now live in San Diego, have dwarfism; their fight for a child is chronicled in documentary Far From The Tree, which is coming to theaters in limited release this weekend. The film follows a number of families in which the children are vastly different from their parents, touching upon everything from autism and homosexuality to Down syndrome and dwarfism.
The story of Leah and Joe is a particularly heartwarming one, and it has a very happy resolution; the film ends with the birth of their daughter, Hazel, who just so happens to not have dwarfism. And things have only gotten more exciting since then; just a few weeks ago, Leah gave birth to a second baby, Silas – who also does not have the same condition as his parents.
‘It was really, really emotional,’ says director Rachel Dretzin, who spent years following Joe and Leah and the other families featured in the film. ‘I have to say, Joe and Leah are even more fabulous than they are on screen – and it was such a privilege to spend so much time with them, privy to such intimate moments in their life. We were actually there when [Hazel] was born.
‘We’d seen them go through heartbreak after heartbreak; it was just thrilling.’
The film came about following the 2012 publication of a best-selling book by the same name, written by author Andrew Solomon, who got the idea to investigate unusual family dynamics from his personal experience as a gay man whose parents struggled to accept his orientation.
‘I thought, “I don’t want to know just about families of gay people; I wanted to look as widely as I could,”’ Solomon says in the film, detailing his ‘attempt to investigate how families go about dealing with children who are very different from them.’
‘I spent ten years researching and writing this book … The stories I heard felt so alien at the beginning, but bit by bit they came to feel very real and very intimate to me.
‘I realized that, in telling these stories, I was investigating the very nature of family itself.’
Dretzin became interested in making the documentary after coming across a review of Solomon’s book.
‘I was just so struck by the humanity of the story, and I immediately thought, “Wow, this sounds like it would make an incredible film,”’ she tells DailyMail.com. ‘And then I read the book, and I was even more taken with it. It just stirred me in such a deep way that I was sort of like, “I’m going to make this movie.”’
She and her team contacted various families and earned their trust, eventually convincing them to let the film follow their lives – and now many are counted as friends, such as Joe and Leah. The filmmakers accompanied them on trips to see Leah’s family in Texas and Joe’s in Connecticut and to the annual Little People of America Convention, as well as sitting the couple down to hear their backstory.
‘Joe and I met back in the days of MySpace,’ says Leah, 37, who works as a media and entertainment advocate for the Center for Disability Rights as well as director of public relations for Little People of America. ‘I had seen his MySpace page, and I read everything he wrote on there – and he didn’t just write, “My name is Joe;” he wrote like his entire political beliefs about everything you can imagine.’
She thought: ‘Holy smokes, this guy is fascinating.’
‘And I made, like, this mental note: I’m going to meet him. That was all there was to it: I want to meet this guy,’ she says. ‘So I knew I was interested in him immediately. And then it kind of took us a while, took us two years before we got serious. We dated for four years, and then we got married.
‘I had dated some average-height people and tried to stay open-minded about it, but I just found that they didn’t get me, and I don’t know that there’s anyone who gets me the way he does,’ she says of Joe, who uses a wheelchair because his limbs are underdeveloped. ‘I love his dwarfism. It’s something that we say: “I like your ‘ism.”
‘There’s certain characteristics involved with every type of dwarfism, and for achondroplasia, it’s having bigger hips … so Joe will walk up to me in a public space [and] whisper to me: “I like your ‘ism,” meaning “I like you’re a**,”’ she laughs, as Joe playfully sings the Sir Mix-A-Lot hit Baby Got Back in the background.
‘I think there is this cultural understanding that, when you see people like me, the core of the experience is negative,’ Joe says. ‘And when people have low expectations, it’s surprising to them when I indicate somehow that I’m not suffering.
An assistant professor in philosophy, he’s quick with a joke and lights up the screen in the documentary, imitating a nature narrator such as David Attenborough as he picnics with Leah in a park and quips: ‘Here’s the dwarf in his natural habitat. He’s taking his afternoon meal.’
Both husband and wife are keen advocates for disability rights.
‘Personally, I’m against the idea that someone is researching to find a cure for my type of dwarfism,’ Leah says in the film. ‘It’s the same message that we get our whole lives – that there’s something wrong with you and we need to fix it. I don’t think I need to be fixed.’
As she and Joe pursue a viable pregnancy, it’s an issue they address with candor on camera.
‘Whether or not the baby will be born with a disability is, of course, something that we’ve thought about somewhat,’ says Joe, 36. ‘It’s certainly something that the doctors talk about a lot. I think they see normality as the end goal, and just sort of assuming that normality is what any parent would want for their child.’
His wife adds: ‘I think that every parent has a desire for their ideal child – you know, like some people, it’s like: “I really want a girl.” But if they have a boy, it’s not the end of the world. So I have a desire for a little person, but if we had an average-size child, I think I will still get it on a level, because I understand what it’s like to be different than your family.’
That’s exactly what ended up happening – not just once, but twice, with both the couple’s newborn son and two-year-old daughter. There is a 25 percent chance that both parents with dwarfism will have an average-sized child.
‘I was out in Los Angeles – I think it was January – and they drove up with Hazel and we spent an evening together,’ Dretzin tells DailyMail.com. ‘She’s walking, talking; she’s still not taller than they are, but she will be pretty soon. What’s amazing about them – actually about pretty much everybody in the film – is that they forget about these differences really quickly. It’s just minor.
‘For Joe and Leah, it’s just not a big deal. I mean, I’m sure their kids are going to be very political and aware about all disability-related issues, but I find it hard to imagine there could be any real limit to what Joe and Leah could do. Obviously, [the children] are going to be a lot bigger than they are.
‘There are some physical limitations for Joe, in particular, because he’s in a chair; he can’t pick Hazel up. But … he just figures it out. And it’s kind of amazing to see all of the different ways he figures it out. It just doesn’t slow him down.’
She adds: ‘They’re just intrepid … They’re just a delight. They’re so much fun and so smart.’
It was an interesting project for Dretzin, she says, because she did not personally have any experience with anyone who had any type of disability.
‘I’m almost embarrassed to say I didn’t, because it’s unusual not to,’ she tells DailyMail.com. ‘I really didn’t. Obviously, I’ve had sort of chance encounters with people with disabilities, but I don’t have anybody intimately in my life who does [have a disability]. But you know, as a documentary filmmaker, that’s part of the reason I am a documentary filmmaker – is that I’m curious about people who are different from me in a way.’
She says she expects criticism for making the film as a non-disabled person, though ‘the people in the film don’t feel that way at all.
‘I think they all would stand up and really defend the process and the filmmakers,’ she tells DailyMail.com. ‘But we certainly do expect that there will be criticism of the fact that, for the most part, we are able-bodied filmmakers.’
She hopes, however, that the film prompts dialogue across a whole range of communities.
‘We’re in a political climate that’s [a bit] obsessed with otherness and differences and building walls, and I hope that the film has the impact on people that the book had on me,’ she says. ‘It was a very immersive experience, and I walked out of it – metaphorically speaking – and things looked different. I realized that a lot of my assumptions about people who looked different or acted different were really hollow, and that I felt kind of real openness.
‘And I think, based on the reactions that the film’s getting, that there’s a similar kind of impact. I really just hope that the film, in a political climate in which we’re really all about boundaries, I hope the film gives people some real hope that there’s another way to go.
‘Politically, and in every other way, it’s very easy for us to silo ourselves off from people who are different from us – and I think that’s happening everywhere,’ she says. ‘But the family, you can’t. You just can’t. And these are people who just are forced to confront differences in the most intimate of settings. And when you see how beautiful some of those connections they find to each other are … I think it gives you a lot of hope.’