The Short Documentary ‘Holding Moses’ Opens a Door to Conversations About Disability

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A white woman with buzzed hair hugs a child
Moses and Randi Rader in a still from 'Holding Moses.' (Courtesy the filmmakers)

A few days after COVID-19 forced everyone into lockdown in March 2020, Rivkah Beth Medow sat down with Randi Rader, turned on an audio recorder and queried her for three hours.

Medow was grappling with grief, unrelated to the pandemic, and sought a voice of experience and wisdom, and a path through her distress. She was familiar up to a point with her girlfriend’s rough experience as a mother of a child born with a serious genetic disorder. Now Medow wanted to hear every harrowing detail of Randi’s rollercoaster emotional journey.

“I didn’t know what it was going to be at the time,” Medow recalls, “but I got it transcribed and then I put together a radio cut of it.” Although the East Bay filmmaker had initiated the interview and the recording for her personal use, she was too moved to keep to herself. So she sent it to her creative partner, Jen Rainin, with a note.

“Hey, think there’s a film here?” she wrote. “What is this? This is something.”

Medow’s instinct proved accurate. The duo premiered Holding Moses last spring at SFFILM, followed by Frameline and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, garnering awards at all three local fests. The 17-minute film — which Rainin describes as an “experiential narrative” — debuted on The New Yorker website (where you can watch it for free) in November, and a month later was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Documentary Short. (It didn’t receive an Oscar nomination, alas, nor did another shortlisted East Bay short film, American Justice on Trial: People v. Newton. San Francisco filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt did receive a nomination for Short Documentary — his second in two years in that category — for How Do You Measure a Year?)

Young boy with dark brown hair smiles and touches face of woman with buzzed hair in golden landscape
Moses and Randi Rader in a still from 'Holding Moses.' (Courtesy the filmmakers)

Holding Moses is a deeply touching glimpse of a mother-son relationship that is both recognizable and atypical, for young Moses has the extremely rare Phelan-McDermid Syndrome. We are granted intimate access to their bond, and even more so to Randi’s pain, despair and acceptance of her disabled child. The piece is anchored by Randi’s voice-over, 90% of which comes from her original conversation with Medow.


“‘Is this going to be the day you open your eyes?’ And he just lied there. He was so still, and he was so beautiful,” Randi recounts in the film. “I had no idea what I was in for.”

She goes on to acknowledge, “It was shocking, because in the throes of being given the greatest gift of life, which is like, birthing a child from your body, but instead I was given the hardest thing that I’d ever even given.”

Holding Moses uses the body as a recurring theme via various forms of movement, notably archival footage of Randi’s stint as a dancer with Stomp and her studies in Japan with a Butoh master. Moses’ tactile, tentative crawl on a trampoline serves as both an echo and a counterpoint.

The other recurring visual motif is the sun-kissed Northern California landscape, whether traversed alone by Randi on a bicycle or on walks through woods with her daughters and Moses.

A white person's hand with fingerless gloves grabs at dry grasses
A still from 'Holding Moses.' (Clare Major)

The pandemic precluded filming with other people, but the result is to position the family as a self-contained, self-reliant, self-supporting unit. The effect is a kind of optimism without a saccharine Hallmark aftertaste.

“There’s a tone of hope and belief that Randi will come through this,” Medow says. “We wanted to make this film as beautiful as possible, as we believe in beauty as a way to crack open people to receive information that they might not necessarily accept or be interested in if it weren’t so visually appealing. It’s a strategy.”

That approach makes sense for reaching a broad audience, even with a short film. A certain subcategory of parents, however, responded simply to the existence and depiction of Randi’s family.

“We had a number of people reach out through social media and say things like, ‘I have a disabled child and I watched this with my typical children and it cracked us all open,’” Rainin recounts. “One person said, ‘This was a door to have honest conversations with my other kids about the effect that their brother has had on us, both challenging and positive.’”

“Randi talks very openly about her journey of ableism,” Medow says. “When Moses was born, she thought there was one kind of disabled child. Showing someone who talks in a raw and vulnerable way about that experience has been remarkably validating. We understand there’s a complicated legacy around valuing disabled bodies and this film is interested in joining conversations about how we resource parents better so that maybe it doesn’t feel so difficult when a child is born with impairments, with disabilities. So we do community screenings and work with disability groups, rare disease groups and queer family groups so we can have those conversations.”

Holding Moses broaches a subject that’s rarely discussed in private, let alone acknowledged in public: A parent’s process of grieving for the life they had imagined for their child and that will never be.

For Randi, there’s the specific intervening event. But Medow identifies a universal aspect of having children: “Most parents I know work to understand the kid we have, and let go of the kid we imagine having.”

‘Holding Moses’ is now steaming on The New Yorker website.