Documentary follows USU grad with autism on Kilimanjaro climb
Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a feat unto itself. Many climbers have risen to the challenge of scaling that 19,000-foot dormant volcano in Tanzania.
One of those who recently attempted the climb was Troy Shumway, a graduate of Utah State University’s Aggies Elevated program.
His trek was documented by filmmaker Ben Stamper in “Follow the Sound of My Voice,” which will be screened for free at the Jim Santy Auditorium on Saturday at 1 p.m.
Shumway, who has autism, was a student in the first class of the Aggies Elevated program that USU started two years ago, according to Shane Johnson, USU’s associate director of development for the Center for Persons with Disabilities.
“The program, which is donor funded, is an inclusive college experience for students who might not otherwise matriculate at a university,” Johnson explained during an interview with The Park Record. “The Center for Persons with Disabilities, which is based in the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services, exists to improve the lives of people who have disabilities and the people who serve them. It’s a large, complex center that offers about 70 programs that work towards that goal in different ways.”
Shumway comes from a family that loves recreation, according to Johnson.
“His father runs Iron Man triathlons and his mother is athletic as well,” he said. “As a family vacation, they wanted to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa.”
Since Aggies Elevated is donor funded, the family decided to make the climb a fundraiser for the Aggies Elevated program.
“Troy’s climb up the mountain was symbolic of the climb that the students experience in this rigorous program,” Johnson said. “The mountain is more than 19,000 feet high, and once you get above 15,000 feet the rest of the climb becomes a test of endurance.”
Shumway’s goal caught the attention of Jersey City-based filmmaker Ben Stamper, who was at USU to make a series of promotional videos for the Aggies Elevated program.
When he found out Troy and his family were going to Africa, he went with them.
“I became aware of this climb and that was quickly something that seemed like a good story to follow,” Stamper said during a phone call from his Jersey City home. “A few months later, we headed out to Africa.”
The climb took 11 days — nine days up and two days down.
“I did some initial interview filming and met his family a few days prior to our trip, but most of the footage takes place on the mountain,” Stamper said.
The process was the most demanding project of Stamper’s career, he said.
“I say I climbed the mountain twice, because for every shot you have to position yourself in places other than the trail,” he said. “I didn’t have a crew. It was just me and a few cameras and microphones, but if I was to do this again, I wouldn’t do it differently, because I was able to, in a way, step into Troy’s shoes and be there right with him.”
At the end of the day, Shumway had to take every step up the mountain by himself.
“My job was to follow him with the camera, so we shared a similar path,” Stamper said.
During the climb, Stamper noticed a change in Shumway.
“The main thing I discovered that I wanted to reflect in the film is that he begins with a confident understanding of who he is as someone with autism. But during the climb, that confidence was broken down to a place where Troy started to question the climb itself as a fundraising effort,” Stamper said. “He had to ask himself fundamental questions like ‘Who signed me up for this?’ ‘Why am I doing this?’ and ‘What does this mean?’”
Stamper also realized Shumway wasn’t used to doing any self-reflection.
“So the second day we started some poetry exercises to try to get him to articulate and come out of his shell, which became the true spine of the film,” Stamper said. “This wasn’t planned. But he had a real natural ability for it.”
That, added to the physical and mental demands of the climb, brought Shumway to a more existential place, according to Stamper.
“Troy didn’t expect any fanfare about the trip,” he said. “He climbed this mountain. He came down it, and it was great. So, for him it wasn’t about making a grandiose statement, and I love that.”
Throughout the climb, Stamper saw how supportive Shumway’s parents were.
“They are remarkable,” he said. “They were never interested in holding Troy back as a person. So when I put a camera in front of them, I tried to break down that barrier of subject and filmmaker as much as I could by sharing life with them.”
Saturday’s screening of “Follow the Sound of My Voice” will be followed by a Q &A with Shumway and Stamper, who will then premiere a short documentary, “Don’t Foil My Plans,” which is about a musician with autism.
Sally Tauber, who is in charge of USU’s corporate and foundation relations, said the screenings is made possible by Maschoff Brennan, the Park City Film Series and the National Ability Center.
In addition to the screenings, the National Ability Center will host adaptive archery and cycling activities from 10 a.m. until noon.
“We are stoked to have community partners for this event,” she said. “We know there are a lot of families affected by autism.”
Utah has the highest number of people diagnosed with autism in the United States, Tauber said.
“So, this screening will help raise awareness,” she said.
A free screening of Ben Stamper’s documentary “Follow the Sound of My Voice,” will be held at the Park City Library’s Jim Santy Auditorium, 1255 Park Ave., on Saturday, Oct. 15, at 1 p.m. For more information, visit https://cehs.usu.edu/follow-the-sound-of-my-voice.
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