In late January 2019, tragedy struck in New York’s subway stairs. Twenty two year old Malaysia Goodson fatally fell down while carrying her child’s stroller on the stairs. The incident shook director Victor Dias Rodrigues because of how close to home it hit. ” A lot of my fellow New Yorkers and I have helped people go up and down stairs with their strollers or you know with their heavy luggage and stuff like that.” It started the spark for his documentary short All Riders (2021), a film that follows the fight for accessibility in New York’s subway system. For eight months, Victor began to research and look into academic papers on the lack of proper accessibility for disabled folks. This research led him to meet activists and advocates to hear and through the film “kind of give a little glimpse of the fight that they go through.”
Although producer Branton Choi wasn’t aware of many of issues in the subways, he joined the project after meeting with Victor. “I think it was his passion for this issue and his passion to spread awareness on this issue that really drew me to it.”
For Victor it was important to give a voice to Malaysia and activists like Sasha Blair Goldensohn, who became disabled after being struck by a tree branch. He says, “We want to give the facts to the people, but we don’t want to dump a lot of information and confuse a lot of people because it is a complex issue, but (at the same time) fundamentally keeping the human interest at the core.” With this in mind, filming began with general broad strokes of the story. The building blocks for the film came after, “The actual narrative, the beats that we were going to hit, that really kind of materialized a little later. So it was a little bit of just kind of going with the flow.”
Sasha’s accident is recreated via animation, something that was chosen because of the nature of the medium. “There’s conventions, like live action, reenactments, and we thought about it. But once we’ve kind of gone back to drawing boards, it’s like wait a minute, it might be too raw. It might be too disturbing to to reenact that.” says Branton, “Using animation, it was sort of a way to contextualize it in a more digestible way and and kind of tell the story as a matter of fact.” Learning about how Sasha got involved in activism and the fight for accessibility seemed like it was full of visual potential. Sasha’s story is one that speaks to the complexities of the disabled community explains Victor, “A lot of people become disabled through life, like him (Sasha) through accident, or injury ,or disease. We could all think of ourselves as temporarily able. We will, after all, all age.”
All Riders was made in honor of Malaysia Goodson, so meeting her family was something that was really important for the team. Gaining the trust of the Malaysia’s family started with cultivating a relationship with them that grew over months. On March 27, 2019, Victor met Dontaysia Turner for the first time at a weekly Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) meeting, where the public can comment to the board. It was the one of the first meetings after Malaysia’s death, “It was super depressing, super raw, it was really, really, hard to be there.” says Victor.
After getting her contact info, he tried to stay in touch through the summer via emails and texts. In September 2019, he was able to interview her and Tamika Goodson at her home in the South Bronx for two hours. “I think they really recognized our mission. They really understood what we were trying to do here. This movie was for Malaysia and I think they really saw our intentions as genuine and true. ” Two months later they traveled together to the steps where Malaysia lost her life for the first time. “It was a really difficult moment as a director to kind of really get them in that place and kind of navigate that space right.” says Victor, “But I think that’s a testament to their courage. Really in their just strength of character. And especially for me, I can’t imagine what it must have been like.”
Creating these connections and safety in vulnerability with the family was important for the team to show that they were genuinely involved, “We felt really strongly the responsibility of like, we don’t want to do like a pity party and we really don’t want to linger too much and kind of make it exploitative. As Branton mentioned with the raw kind of visceral nature of Sasha’s accident, we didn’t want to do that in the same extent with with Goodson’s. Especially because it’s the first time they’re visiting.” Crafting the scene in the editing room took months of back and forth between Victor and Branton, days of editing and letting it rest before looking at it again. “The reason why I think it worked so well, is because Branton and I really were able to hit it off in the terms of the thematic elements we wanted to hit. “
Favorite Surprising Moments:
Branton: “The first cut came out like 40 minutes and then I sort of set a hard goal: let’s make it 15. Let’s make cut under 15. I think it took months and months to swivel it down to 15. The moment once we locked it at 15, we were just kind of like in shock. Both of us kind of looked at each other, I mean, virtually, and on the phones. Just like, wow, we did it!
Victor: If I have to pick one I’d say the stroller. The parents. The couple with the stroller, when the Goodson’s are in the station, on the staircase, where she fell and passed away. That was unbelievable. And I can’t write that. And that’s why Branton and I love documentary filmmaking just because you can’t write that.
All Riders played in the Power to the People program at Palm Springs International ShortFest. Check out all of our 2021 Shortfest coverage here.