Featuring a rockstar and the attempts of a disabled man to realise a 15-year dream to meet him, Mission To Lars, has Hollywood plot written all over it. But this isn’t a script penned by blockbuster bigwigs; instead, it’s the latest in a trend of social action films, unscripted documentaries raising awareness about issues far outside the mainstream.

Mission To Lars also delves into personal relationships as the siblings of the film’s star – Tom Spicer – travel 5000 miles with him from the UK to the US in a quest to meet Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. It often makes for uncomfortable viewing, leading the audience to question how it would cope in that situation, and how it views disability on the whole. And that’s the point.

Backrolled by donations and a Wellcome Trust grant, all profits from Mission To Lars go to mental health charity Mencap, putting this project firmly among the ranks of documentaries endorsed by the third sector to shine a light on social issues. Viewers watch how journalist Kate Spicer and her film-maker brother William help Tom, 40, who has the genetic condition Fragile X syndrome, realise his dream. It emerges they know little about the condition that leads to Tom being hypersensitive to noise, anxious in crowds, uncomfortable out of his routine, and creates problems with his communication.

His siblings – Kate who is in a constant state of fluster trying to arrange a meeting with Ulrich, and Will, who is filming – take him from the comfort zone of his Devon care home (the project threatened to end here when Tom went AWOL) and fly with him to the US, before negotiating thousands of heavy metal fans and the unfamiliar backstage labyrinth of a rock stadium.

For Tom, it’s an immensely challenging undertaking. The unpredictability makes him nervous, leading to him questioning his commitment to the mission in some touch-and-go scenes. “From the get-go, we blindly assumed this was going to be a jolly old trip,” Kate says. “It was supposed to be something that could bring us all closer together.

But our parents warned us it wasn’t going to be as easy. “Growing up, I knew Tom as a sibling, someone who I could sort most things out with over a bit of rough and tumble, but I realised I’m clueless as a carer. I guess as children we weren’t so familiar with Tom’s idiosyncrasies.”


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For the siblings, having a charity link became important in terms of how the film, released this month, would be perceived, to contest inevitable charges of exploitation. “We were well aware that if we hadn’t of made Mission To Lars for charity, then there would be accusations,” Kate, 42, says. “Initially, we didn’t set out to make it a charity film, but it soon became apparent the question was why wouldn’t we? Mencap lobbies the government on disability issues, which made us feel like we were investing in Tom’s future.

“Financially, Tom would never have really profited from the film anyway. His benefits and his even his care could have been withdrawn. However, Will and I, and James [Moore, co-director] may have, and that would have looked pretty bad.”
NGO-supported documentaries are enjoying growing credibility. It seems a perfect marriage: charities can access prominent film-makers, and film-makers get research and funding otherwise difficult to access. Slick productions ensure the world tunes in and all parties flourish.

The Oceanic Preservation Society backed 2009 crusading documentary The Cove, which highlighted Japan’s dolphin hunting culture. It scooped an Academy Award for Best Documentary. One of many films Amnesty has given backing to is Erasing David, which follows a man’s attempt to wipe himself from all records to raise awareness of the privacy dangers in our database state. Earlier this year, a online short film about Joseph Kony went viral (see box right). These movies aren’t just for the viewer, they’re also important for the makers and the subjects. In Mission To Lars, Kate describes a lightbulb moment when the siblings meet an American Fragile X expert who describes the syndrome. Tom’s relief that someone finally ‘gets’ him is palpable.

“We are sitting in Dr Raundi Hardman’s office and she’s explaining Tom to us, and Tom is just nodding and going ‘finally, someone is telling these two gits what my life is like, thank you Lord!’,” Kate says. “We used to talk to Tom like he was an idiot, unused to listening, really listening, to him.” Ultimately, the film portrays Tom as a complex and likeable character, not someone defined by his disability. So has Mencap duly achieved its objective?

Mark Goldring, Mencap’s CEO, says: “A lot of Mencap’s work focuses on supporting people with a learning disability to be as involved as possible in ‘mainstream’ society, and to not just be seen as ‘different’, including developing disabled talent on TV. Mission To Lars contributes to this effort.”

Tom’s brother Will, 36, adds: “As well as some universal truths, there’s definitely a strong message of treating people who have learning disabilities as human beings. But we didn’t want to bang that drum. We wanted to be ourselves and go into the film without an agenda, with Tom portrayed as a regular guy doing a regular thing.”

Missions To Lars can  be seen in Picturehouse cinemas across London now

Photos: Getty, Chris Floyd

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