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Q&A: Mark Birnbaum

by Stephen Becker 28 Sep 2012 10:33 AM

The Dallas filmmaker discusses his latest documentary about a Fort Worth fire fighter struggling to reclaim his life after he’s paralyzed.


One minute, Marshall Allen was a hulking Fort Worth fire fighter, saving people’s lives. The next, he was paralyzed – confined to a wheelchair and relying on others for help. It all happened the instant Allen hit a tree branch while riding his bike, sailed over his handlebars and landed in a ditch, waiting for death.

How Allen reclaims his life and takes on a new persona is the subject of Swingman, a documentary by Dallas filmmaker Mark Birnbaum that premieres tonight at Dallas VideoFest. Birnbaum talks about why Allen’s story interested him and how he got him to open up about his struggles in a Q&A:

Art and Seek: How did you find Marshall’s story?

Mark Birnbaum: Marshall’s story came to me by way of introduction through Alexandra Alred, who was writing a book about him. She told me the story, and, you know, we’re in an age where I’ve got the equipment. If I’ve got the time, I can drive to Fort Worth and make a documentary. That’s pretty much what happened – it was a labor of love and a great story.

A&S: There are lots of stories about people overcoming disabilities that you could have told. Why this one?

M.B.: My interest in this story was really entirely based on my impression of Marshall Allen. He’s an amazing guy. I’ve made other films about disability, so there’s always a solid thread there. But this is an amazing man. Marshall Allen exemplifies the “fighter” part of fire fighter about as well as anyone you’ll ever meet. Fire fighting is a job marked by long hours of waiting around punctuated by moments of sheer terror. When fire fighters are waiting around in the station, they talk, and one of the things they talk about it seems is: How will you behave when the worst happens. When that house on fire is collapsing around you. And Marshall used to say when the Grim Reaper calls for him, they’ll find claw marks on the wall, where he fought him off to the very end. And that’s pretty much how he’s approached paralysis.

A&S: There’s a scene in the film where Marshall is determined to take an attachment off of a vacuum as he’s cleaning up around his house, and ultimately his daughter has to take it off for him. That scene seems to capture his struggle between self-reliance and asking others for help.

M.B.: In his previous life, before he was paralyzed, he didn’t have to ask for help very often. It was people all the time asking him for help – depending on his help to perhaps save their lives. So it’s quite a turnaround. His life now is marked by different ways of getting respect. Eddie Burns, who was the fire chief in Dallas, says that everyone used to look up to Marshall – Marshall was 6-4. Now, literally, everyone looks down at Marshall. So he has to find that self-respect in different ways.

A&S: You were also able to get Marshall to open up about other aspects of his life.

M.B.: Getting people to open up is something I’ve gotten a lot of practice at doing making different films and just having conversations with people. It’s built upon mutual respect and earned trust. And I earn the trust by showing up, and then showing up and then showing up. Over time, I can gain someone’s trust, and, hopefully, I’ve earned it. That said, Marshall’s a very open guy.

So how many films have you had in VideoFest at this point?

M.B.: It’s gotta be somewhere around 6 or 7 – maybe 8. VideoFest for many years was my deadline. It was what was necessary to get me to stop editing and finish the show. As it was this year with Swingman. … After 25 years, it’s a freaking institution here in Dallas. … I tried to talk Bart after 20 into stopping it. Because it takes a toll on you. A lot of people work on it, a lot of people pull it together, but, boy, he takes it very seriously. I thought, ‘20’s a great number!’ Twenty five’s better, and I’m going to shut up about stopping.

Swingman plays tonight at 9 p.m. and Sunday at 4 p.m.