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Despite obstacles, local writer aims to make his movie

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Christopher Harmon
Christopher Harmon has written several children's books and now is working on his first feature film "Sparkle Serena." He has done this even though he is legally blind, deaf, mute and quadriplegic.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Christopher Harmon can see about a foot, maybe 18 inches. He can't hear anything. He's also quadriplegic, and because he uses a respirator, he can't talk. 

Unless there is a sign language interpreter who can also read his lips within his sight, he's isolated from the outside world. Despite this, he's written four books using help from his  interpreters. Today Joan Lisi-McCoy is reading his lips and typing his words. 

"It's all there in the shadows, period. All the truths of who I am," Harmon mouthed.

Working
Harmon interacts with the world through translators such as Joan Lisi-McCoy. Harmon, while legally blind, can see about 18 inches. He reads Lisi-McCoy signs, and she lip-reads and speaks his words aloud.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

The words sound ominous, but Harmon is actually a very positive guy. You have to be if you want to make films.

Harmon has had to struggle all his life. When he was about six years old, doctors diagnosed him with spino cerebellar degeneration. It's a rare neurological condition that interferes with the communication between his brain and his spine. Doctors told his parents he wouldn't live until he was 10. 

When he did they revised that to age 12. Then 15. Now, he is 38.

One of his bigger challenges came in 2000 when Hennepin County denied his request for translator services. 

"I plunged into complete isolation," he said.

Harmon sued, and after an 18 month court battle he settled with the county. He became the first deaf-blind person in Minnesota to win full time interpreter services.  

"And the day that my interpreter services started, that was the day I found life cupped in my hands, and that I realized I was free," Harmon said. "I could do anything."  

Hgarmon says he's always depended on his imagination to fill in the void left by his sensory losses. He says after writing his books, he was looking for something new to do. 

"The day that my interpreter services started, that was the day I found life cupped in my hands, and that I realized I was free. I could do anything."

The one day he found himself watching an old black and white movie. It was the 1939 adaptation of the Frances Hodgson Burnett story "The Little Princess." It starred Shirley Temple, and inspired Harmon.

"The message of the indomitable human spirit," he said. "One day I thought, 'Why not make a film?'" 

Well, there are a whole lot of reasons why not, but over the last six years Harmon has worked his way through many of them. He wrote a 96 page screenplay called "Sparkle Serena." He approached the independent film organization IFP Minnesota for advice on how to get it made. 

He turned to Norman Berns who runs a national film financing discussion group to help him put together a budget. 

"This is not going to be a tiny budget," he said. "It will be small by Hollywood standards, but it's a $5 million film." 

"Sparkle Serena" is the story of a young girl who wants to raise money for friends who faces huge medical bills. She gets the idea of putting on a Broadway dance extravaganza with herself as the star. Harmon says the story is a mixture of fantasy and gritty realism. Berns agrees. 

"It's a very fine line in the script, because the reality is very important to Christopher," Berns said. "But it's that other world that enhances the characters and brings in a whole other layer of richness."

Berns and Harmon are working on assembling a cast. There is a problem though. They need to raise money. Harmon says he needs $100,000 before they can even get started.

"Talent wants to see the money behind the project first. But the investors want to see who is attached to the project, so go back and forth. Catch-22!" he said.

Harmon and his friends have arranged a fundraiser with nationally known comedian Emo Phillips and three other comics in early August. The event took a hit when a corporate sponsor for the event withdrew, so they are scrambling to sell tickets. 

However, ever confident, Harmon continues to drive forward. This week he asked a former Sesame Street director if he would like to take on the film.