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Unconventional film transcends its performers’ limitations

“Bulletproof,” an indie film having its local premiere Thursday at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, may strike some viewers as hard to categorize, if not downright surreal.

Is it a Western? Sort of. A period piece? Yes and no. A comedy-drama-musical? Without question. A film about living with disability? That one’s a head-scratcher.

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In fact, the movie’s 45-member cast and crew features 18 actors with physical and cognitive disabilities. Three are in wheelchairs. For several, speaking parts are clearly a challenge, albeit one they gamely meet.

Yet the 35-minute film, produced by the staff of Zeno Mountain Farm, a Vermont-based group of camps for the disabled, is not about its actors’ limitations, according to camp cofounder Will Halby.

“It’s all about making an awesome movie,” not a statement, says Halby.

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Zeno has released eight previous films, several featuring cameos by Hollywood celebrities. But the buzz around “Bulletproof” is unusually loud as screenings this year are taking place in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C., as well as Boston and Vermont. On Sunday, the film will be shown at the 11th annual Sprout Film Festival, held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, a showcase for films featuring people with disabilities.

Adding to the buzz is the independent documentary that is being shot about the making of “Bulletproof.” The documentary — directed by Michael Barnett, whose film “Superheroes” aired on HBO — is being readied for release this year.

“Bulletproof” opens with a bar owner being threatened by a takeover-minded casino developer. Cutting between the present and the Old West, it tells the colorful story of the bar owner’s ancestor Earl “Bulletproof” Jackson, a traveling magician who rescued the people of fictional Cole Junction from a gang of bad guys long ago.

James Branaman

“Bulletproof” was shot on an old movie set called Pioneertown. The cast featured 18 actors with disabilities.

The film was shot at Pioneertown, a 1940s-era Western movie set that’s now a tourist attraction. Paying homage to its cowboy roots, “Bulletproof” boasts authentic Western costumes, saloon brawls, showdowns at the poker table, and a noisy, if bloodless, gunfight on the town’s main street.

Zeno’s other films, all shot on budgets of $25,000 or less, include a pirate-themed musical and mockumentary about a defunct 1960s rock band, with cameos by Ozzy Osbourne and Johnny Knoxville.

Like its predecessors, “Bulletproof” is wholly original, from its script to its score to its unique mix of able-bodied and disabled actors, none of whom is paid.

Jeremy Vest, 27, who plays Bulletproof Jackson, has Williams syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder. Two of his costars are Alec Bandler, 20, who has Down syndrome, and Judy Moscariello, 51, who has cerebral palsy.

When one character speaks about having to “face life on life’s terms,” he may be channeling the Gary Cooper classic “High Noon.” But he’s also voicing a sentiment that runs through the filmmaking process itself; all cast members, no matter their level of disability, are expected to do their jobs professionally. They must show up on a time and in costume (the rest of the cast is made up of camp volunteers) and set aside their own needs for the greater goal of making a movie.

Barnett got the idea for his documentary after attending a Zeno film premiere three years ago.

“It blew me away,” the filmmaker said, speaking by phone from California. “There was so much spirit and heart to it. I felt like I’d stumbled into this wonderful community nobody knew much about.”

Unsure of how to tell the camp’s story — “I didn’t want to make a camp commercial,” Barnett said — he decided to focus on the filmmaking process, as adapted to accommodate the camp’s special needs community. As the two crews worked side by side during the shooting of “Bulletproof,” any boundaries between them quickly dissolved, he says.

“Special needs were not the biggest hurdle. The filmmaking process was,” said Barnett. “What Zeno creates is a different landscape from the world as we know it. They level the playing field for disabled people so they can create something of value.”

The Zeno back story is compelling itself.

Will Halby and his brother, Peter, have been working at camps for the disabled since volunteering at Camp Jabberwocky on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1980s. Founded in 1953, Jabberwocky is a residential vacation camp for adults and children with disabilities, primarily cerebral palsy. The Halbys also began a close association with AccesSportAmerica , an innovative sports program serving disabled children and adults.

In the mid-90s, the Halbys began organizing their own specialty camps — music, art, sports — in Mississippi, Florida, California, and elsewhere, each lasting from a week to a month. The film camp, based in Southern California, was established in 2003 as a nonprofit.

Producing an original film every year “was really just to give us something to do together as a group,” Will Halby recalls. “We’re very project-based, and for a reason. If you have a goal, it makes day-to-day challenges like personality issues or lack of sleep almost irrelevant.”

In 2008, the Halbys bought 20 acres in Lincoln, Vt., to use as their East Coast base-camp facility. It now hosts a monthlong performing arts summer camp and a winter sports camp. That same year, they absorbed their other far-flung camp entities into a single organization, Zeno Mountain Farm. All run on donations. Campers do not pay to attend, and staffers volunteer. The Halby brothers and their wives, Vanessa and Ila, serve as directors.

As rather playfully described on Zeno’s website, the community consists of “people with Cerebral Palsy, Down syndrome, law degrees, Autism, a love of art, teaching certificates, Cognitive Delay, carpentry skills, Williams Syndrome, a willingness to dance in public and Spina ­Bifida.”

In 2002, a group of Jabberwocky campers blazed a trail of sorts when they starred in “How’s Your News?,” an on-the-road-in-America TV news documentary with a disability twist to it. The film’s backers included “South Park” cocreators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. “How’s Your News?,” which has since inspired two sequels, one covering the 2012 presidential campaign, aired on HBO and made underground stars of its cast.

One was Ronnie Simonsen, who had cerebral palsy and died in 2010. This summer, his name will be attached to a new theater building at the Vermont facility.

Simonsen harbored a deep affection for such B-list stars as Chad Everett. Thanks to Simonsen, Everett agreed to join a group of celebrities who have played small roles in Zeno films: Ted Danson, David Arquette, Lou Ferrigno, Mario Lopez, Joe Manganiello, and Rob Delaney, among others.

“Whether they show up or not doesn’t really matter anyway,” says Halby. “We work on the fly, guerrilla style. That’s what makes it fun to do. And to watch, we hope.”

The “Bulletproof” cast will attend the Coolidge Corner screening Thursday. Audience donations will help fund next year’s film, which has already been scripted and shot. The film tracks a single $1 bill as it migrates from owner to owner, according to Halby.

Beyond that, he says, it’s hard to categorize.

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.
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