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Going the Distance

Director Bill Holloway and Paul Scherdell, the subject of "Go the Distance," discuss their brave and moving film, showing at the Museum of Fine Arts this month.

By Simon Rucker

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Jeff Turner and Paul Scherdell on their cross country journey.

In the very first moments of "Go the Distance," Paul Scherdell says that being a quadreplegic is like seeing life through a video screen.  Yet during the next hour of the documentary, Paul is quite the opposite of a mere observer of life.  Instead the film follows him and his friend Jeff Turner as they travel across the country.

Scherdell didn't always feel this strength of will.  When a motorcycle accident had left him paralyzed at the age of 21, Paul had delved into a life of fear. Yet, several years later he had begun his emotional recovery and hoped to share its positive message with others.

"I thought of film being a perfect medium for people who think their life may be over because of the limitations thrust upon them," says Scherdell. A friend had recommended a few documentaries, among them Holloway’s PBS film "Steam Trains Still Running," and Scherdell called him up to pitch his idea.

"A weak voice on the phone," recalls Holloway about their first conversation, "but he had a vision. Paul’s vision. He is charismatic, engaging, intuitive, an incredible personality." They spent the next eight months raising money and discovered in the process that they had similar ideas about film. Scherdell was not just interested in a chronicle of his journey across the country, so "before we even left I wanted a strong narrative during the film. I like that form. It ended up being necessary to get our point across." 

Holloway had similar ideas and filmed the whole journey in widescreen format, which preserves the expanses of the Badlands and the cramped quarters of an equipment-filled van equally well. Over a period of three years he edited and arranged Scherdell’s voiceover to form a narrative of Scherdell and Turner’s trip.

Because the road trip from Scherdell’s home in Rutland, Massachusetts to the Pacific (and back) provides a kind of ready-made story that leads the viewer along, Scherdell’s life is thrown in a revealing light. "Paul has his own agenda, like an actor directing the film. The result is an invisible wall documentary -- in 25 hours of footage nobody ever looks at the camera," says Holloway. This is not, however, just the story about a guy who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident at 21 and the realization of his dream to see the country like other people do. "Go the Distance" is the story of how Scherdell is different -- he is paralyzed from the neck down, he needs constant attention, his friend Jeff Turner has to wipe his nose and carry him out of bed every morning. Natural wonders are not often accessible by ramps, and so must be see from afar or not at all. The extremely hot weather that makes Turner uncomfortable acts almost as like illness on Scherdell. "We had a difficult time capturing moments of interest because of the strains of the trip," he says. The trying moments show how much Scherdell and Turner had to go through for tiny details most people hardly think about, but these moments are simultaneously images of spirit, friendship, and perseverance.. All of them, great and small, are not to be missed.

What is amazing is that Scherdell made the trip, and the film, at all. There is such a feeling of determination, conveyed in both the voiceover and the image, that any thoughts of pity are replaced by amazement at his achievement. When Scherdell and Turner visit Niagara Falls they start talking with some other tourists (something that happens to them a lot on the trip) and his voiceover recalls how hard it was for him to go out in public after his accident. Seeing Scherdell in the present, speaking with pride and confidence, one can only imagine what it takes to go from being ashamed at people seeing him to going across country with his buddy, and one can only wonder if any of us would be able to do the same.

"Go the Distance" is being presented by the Museum of Fine Arts Film Program on Thursday, December 5th at 8pm and Saturday, December 7th at 1:30pm. Director Bill Holloway will be present at both screenings and Paul Scherdell will be present on Thursday. For more information about the film, visit http://www.gothedistancedoc.com/