Michael McDonald , M.A. ’15

Published: January 31, 2022

Author: Anna Romandash

Michael Mcdonald

Michael McDonald is a National Director of Communications for L'Arche Canada and an independent filmmaker whose passion for visual storytelling developed during his studies at the Kroc Institute. 

Michael’s films and communications work both focus on shifting narratives about living with a disability. 

“I'm really passionate about disability activism and creating opportunities for adaptive filmmaking,” said Michael. “Filmmaking where a person with an intellectual disability not only can be sharing their opinion, but can be shaping the film itself.”

Prior to enrolling to study peace, he worked as a ghostwriter in France and Kenya, where he started craving a better understanding of power and structures. As he looked at different graduate programs, the Kroc Institute was most compelling because of the diverse international cohort of students in the Master’s program.

“I was really eager to join a new community of practice and to try to learn how to combine critical reasoning with compassion and activism,” Michael adds. “The idea of the scholar-practitioner was something that I wanted to develop in myself.”

Michael credits the Kroc Institute with teaching him a number of skills that he still uses regularly in his work. For instance, he learned how to write grant applications to help fund creative, imaginative work, a skill set that helped him find initial funding for his film projects. He found a professor of film to be his mentor from Notre Dame's Film, Television, and Theater department and started making films during his second year at the Institute. 

“It was a grant that I got while at the Kroc Institute, which allowed me to make my first film, ‘I am Musa,’ which went viral,” he says. “The United Nations showed it in their headquarters on the International Day for Persons with Disabilities. I started getting invitations to do films that had to do with disability activism on the spot.” 

Right after graduation, Michael was able to secure funding for further film projects that focus on disability, humanity, and representation. By the time he graduated, he was also contracted for his first documentary series.  

“As an idea person, I've got lots of sticky notes around, and if it weren't for Kroc, a lot of those would have just stayed ideas,” he explains. 

His recent film, “Freebird,” won over 30 international awards and is in contention for a 2022 Oscar nomination. The film is an animated story about a boy with Down Syndrome.

Michael’s inspiration for “Freebird” was learning that his brother was planning to adopt a child with Down Syndrome. As he was processing this news, he thought about the gift he could give to this child and to people with Down Syndrome whose stories are not always well represented. Michael’s friend sent him a song that was dedicated to the freedom struggle of those with Down Syndrome and this became the backing track for the film. 

“When I listened to the song, the large shape of the story flashed before my eyes because I had been  interviewing hundreds of people with Down Syndrome over the last several years,” Michael said. 

Initially, the idea was to make a live-action movie, but COVID restrictions led him to consider animation, even though he had never worked in that medium before. 

“Our creative director, Nicholas, an artist with Down Syndrome, said he had never seen a person with Down Syndrome in animation throughout his whole life,” Michael said. “So to get to create this world and these characters in an animated story was really powerful.”

“We are trying to create a world where more people realize that we would be impoverished if you were to remove disability from human embodiment and community,” the alumnus concluded, “And we try to highlight the contributions that disability offers the world.”