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Windsor filmmaker highlights Sonoma Developmental Center's success in 'True Humans'

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What does it mean to be human?

That’s the driving question behind a new documentary film about the lives of some of the former residents of the Sonoma Developmental Center, a beloved Eldridge hospital that shut down in December 2018 after 127 years.

The film, titled “True Humans,” premieres Sunday at the Sonoma Film Festival. It was directed and produced by Guanajuato-born filmmaker — and Windsor resident — Malinalli Lopez Arreguin.

Over the course of 43 minutes, the film gives audiences a hard look at the role the SDC played in the lives of these patients and their caregivers, and the challenges that await in the aftermath of the facility’s closing late last year. The narrative hinges on interviews with the caregivers, who share incredibly personal stories of how and when their loved ones arrived at SDC, and how and when they left.

The interviews also reveal deep gratitude for the community the SDC created for its patients.

“This film is about giving a voice to those who don’t have one,” Arreguin said about the film. “When a person is developmentally disabled they lose much of their humanity. They do not have the ability to speak, work, or participate in the larger community. But they’re still people. They’re still human.”

One of the “stars” of the film is 51-year-old Dan Smith, who came to SDC in 2000 and was one of the last to leave. Smith’s mother, Kathleen Miller, was a social worker at the center for eight years, and now serves as president of the Parent Hospital Association, the organization that has been advocating for patients as they prepare for relocation into other homes and hospitals around the Bay Area.

The PHA also funded the film. Miller says she thinks the documentary does a great job of capturing what made SDC and its patients special.

“There used to be this thinking that when people had loved ones at the developmental center, it was like they gave up,” said Miller, 73, and a resident of Santa Rosa. “That couldn’t be farther from the truth. (The SDC) was home for these patients. They were just as much a part of our community as anyone.”

Local leaders including California state Senator Mike McGuire, 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, and John McCaull, land acquisition manager at the Sonoma Land Trust, also appear in the documentary.

The film even flicks at recent controversy surrounding the SDC. In the months leading up to SDC’s closure, residents of Eldridge and Glen Ellen were concerned about what would become of the property. Then, in April of this year, the state committed to spending up to $40 million under a new plan that would stave off any immediate sale and extend basic post-closure operations at the shuttered facility another three years, giving more time for local stakeholders to decide the property’s future.

Arreguin didn’t always want to pursue a career in film; in many ways, she stumbled into it. Her family came to the United States from Mexico when she was a small child. Later, at the beginning of the millennium, during her tenure as a student at the U.C.Berkeley, Arreguin enrolled in Chicano studies classes and found herself depressed by terrible conditions for Mexican women throughout time.

To deal with this sadness, she’d lose herself in historical films about different periods of Mexican history, such as “Like Water for Chocolate” and “La Bamba.” One day it hit her — these films weren’t only entertaining, but they also were educational.

That’s when she knew she wanted to go to film school.

“I thought it’d be amazing to create films that teach us, but also heal us as people,” she says, looking back. “I wanted to make films that help address the questions of how we keep moving forward, how we stay inspired and how we continue to have a rich cultural imagination despite all of the ways in which society is stacked up against us.”

Arreguin graduated from San Francisco’s Academy of Art University in 2015. Once she began making movies, Arreguin founded her own company: XQL Media. The XQL is a direct reference to Xochitlquetzal, the Aztec goddess of the arts, a fitting reference for a woman from Guanajuato living her creative dreams.

Today, when she’s not making movies, Arreguin serves as an adjunct professor of Chicano studies and multiculturalism at Sonoma State University. She also teaches filmmaking workshops to underserved youth.

Arreguin said she hopes “True Humans” inspires people to reconsider how they view those with disabilities.

“My hope is that people see this movie (about SDC) and recognize there is a vulnerable part of our society that no one ever thinks about,” she says. “Now more than ever, we need to support each other.”

She adds that many family members and patient groups have lobbied for a second film that follows up on each patient story and delves into how the closure of the SDC has changed their lives. There’s no release date for this film yet, but Arreguin is hopeful it will happen at some point in the next year.

Matt Villano is a writer and editor based in Healdsburg. Learn more about him at whalehead.com.

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