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Oscar Inspiration

By Myra Saturen
May 05, 2010

For NCC graduate Roger Ross Williams, '83, winning an Academy Award means more than just achieving the pinnacle of Hollywood success.  The statuette he carries everywhere represents the opportunity to make a difference in the way Africans and Americans view and treat people with disabilities.

Williams and Prudence Mabhena, the subject of his short documentary "Music by Prudence," spent May 3 and 4 at NCC, introducing and commenting on the film, lunching with students and visiting classes. 

Born in Zimbabwe with a disorder that left her legless and with twisted, paralyzed arms, Mabhena survived nearly unimaginable hardships in a country where life even without disabilities is formidable.  The landlocked nation is bankrupt, has sporadic electricity, empty grocery shelves, unreliable water, and craterlike potholes.  Even more difficult for people with disabilities is social isolation.  Seen as cursed by witchcraft, these Zimbabweans are typically shunned by family members. 

Prudence's parents abandoned her to her grandmother from the ages of four to seven.  When she returned to her father, her hostile stepmother neglected her, leaving her to lie in her own excrement.  "When a child is born in Zimbabwe, people rejoice," Prudence said.  "When a child with disabilities is born, people weep."

Through all her struggles, Prudence held onto her self-respect and love of music, both instilled by her compassionate grandmother.  Teachers at the King George VI School, for children with disabilities, further encouraged her, and there she formed the band Liyana, acting as lead singer and songwriter. 

A clip of Prudence's band impelled Roger Ross Williams to make a movie about her.  As a youth, Williams felt marginalized by some peers, and he readily empathized with the 21-year-old woman.  Although Williams had already made a name for himself as a producer and director for all the major television networks, NPR and CNN, Music by Prudence is his first independent project.  "I knew I had to tell Prudence's story," Williams said. "I trusted my instincts and took a risk."

The filmmaker's passion and Prudence's indomitable spirit are apparent throughout the film, screened at NCC.  Band members, all of whom are disabled, exude joy, talent and friendship for each other.  The movie has already made an impact in Zimbabwe.  Once a pariah, Prudence returned home from the Oscar ceremony to exuberant crowds. Her father knelt before her on the tarmac to ask for her forgiveness. 

But this enthusiastic reception is just the beginning. Both Prudence and Williams continue to fight for people with disabilities.  Prudence now teaches music, art and dance at the school where she was once a student. She and Williams have advocated for the disabled at the World Bank, met with senators on Capitol Hill and worked with Human Rights Watch.  A White House meeting with President Barack Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama is in the planning stage.

"Every disabled person who is locked or hidden away is lost potential," Williams said.

"I believed in myself and had faith that I could change people's minds," Prudence said. "I wanted to sing for thousands of people and to be independent. We deserve to be treated like everyone else.  Disability does not mean inability."  

"Music by Prudence" will be shown on HBO on May 12.  For more information about the film and the King George VI School, go to the "Music by Prudence" website.

To read more about their visit to the Lehigh Valley, check out these stories in the Express-Times and The Morning Call.

Also enjoy this youtube video of Prudence singing for the packed crowd in Lipkin Theatre!

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