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Tourette syndrome is defined by involuntary gestures: sudden rapid movement, repeated vocalized sounds, twitches.
But as Stefan Morel was making a short film about World-Herald cartoonist Jeff Koterba, who has Tourette's, he knew what his title would be: "Voluntary Gestures."
"When there's a nice balance between what's decided and what's unplanned, that's where the voluntary comes into play," Morel said from his home in Toronto. "Jeff has made some specific choices in his life, his career, how he's chosen to adapt to the world and integrate his disability with his art."
Tourette's, Morel said, has in many ways become become Koterba's muse.
The 25-minute film, which will have its premiere Thursday night at the Omaha Film Festival, is about the beauty in Tourette's, rather than the dark side, Morel said.
Koterba embraced the title right away.
An accomplished guitarist and lead singer for the swing band Prairie Cats, as well as a full-time newspaper cartoonist and a published author, Koterba believes Tourette syndrome happens in people who are artistically and athletically inclined.
For sure he knows he wouldn't be Jeff Koterba without it.
"I believe in this connection between Tourette's and creativity, even though I don't know it's been scientifically proven," he said.
Koterba is not only the central figure of the movie. His thoughts about his life became the film's script, delivered in his own voice as he talks about his life and reads excerpts from the book. He produced pen-and-ink drawings for the film. He and his son, Josh, wrote and performed original music for it.
Still, it took a while for him to embrace the idea of appearing in a film about Tourette's.
The story began in fall 2010 when the Tourette Syndrome Association of Canada invited Morel to submit an idea for a short-film project. Morel, who makes his living shooting music videos and directing TV commercials, had been wanting to try another kind of filmmaking.
"I have an uncle who has Tourette's, and my dad has OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), so I understand beyond being a filmmaker," he said.
By chance, his commercial-film producer knew Koterba's literary agent. Soon Morel was reading Koterba's recently published memoir, "Inklings," in which Koterba wrote about Tourette's. Sometime around the Christmas holidays in 2010, Morel phoned Koterba to ask about shooting the movie. By April of 2011, he was in Omaha for the weeklong shoot.
"We became brothers immediately," Morel said. "Obviously it was a tremendous leap of faith for him, and a brave gesture to agree to do this."
Morel describes his film as a very intimate portrayal of the many facets of Koterba's life, not just his Tourette's. Trust, he said, was essential in the process.
"I was practically embedded," Morel said. "I was his shadow."
The shoot became a search for the connection between the neurological disorder and the creative process.
"I wanted to find where one begins and the other ends, and identify that overlap," Morel said.
Because the two didn't know each other, the film audience discovers along with Morel who Koterba is. The two spent time at The World-Herald, in Koterba's childhood home, at music practice and performing with the Prairie Cats.
"He's discovering things about himself as we're discovering things about him," Morel said.
Both Canadian and American Tourette's organizations have shown an interest in the film, which Morel will first take on the festival circuit.
"What was important for me was to overcome what I do for a living, which is make things easily digestible," Morel said. "It's not always easy to make things real. I tapped into a cinematic language I don't normally get to use."
He took months to edit a week's worth of video, still photos and Koterba's drawings, then add the music.
"I combined all these components born from his mind and experience into what I hope is a complete portrait of a person and his creative output," Morel said.
Koterba said he didn't know at first if he wanted to make "Voluntary Gestures." Now that it's done, there are times he has to turn away from the images on the screen. It can be unsettling to watch his own involuntary gestures.
But he likes the film, how it was made, what it has to say.
"To me, if I can spread the gospel that Tourette's is not just swearing, that there's this creative component and it might be this beautiful thing, then that's great," Koterba said. "And since (Alexander) Payne hadn't asked me to film in Hawaii ..."
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