Fernando Mattos’ Cerebral Palsy Influences a Writing and Film Career
The clock was ticking this summer as Honors College sophomore Fernando Furtado Mattos directed a crew from Georgia State University in short films he wrote and premiered at local film competitions: “Writer’s Block” and “One Memory.”
Entered into the 48 Hour Film Project and the 24 Hour Film Race, Mattos’ romantic characters encounter barriers of communication and connection. “We’ll come back here in the future and every time it will mean something different,” says a character in “One Memory.”
Behind the camera, Mattos faces his own unique challenges: walking, writing and eating. Mattos has cerebral palsy. Mattos’ disability led him to whittle down a number of possible college scholarships and enroll at GSU for its Honors College and campus resources. His focus is film and journalism.
“I probably would not have come here if GSU didn’t have that the Margaret A. Staton Office of Disability Services and the professors here,” said Mattos, who needs extra time and a keyboard to finish his tests. “I am competitive… but how am I going to be expected to take a test as quickly or jot notes at the speed that is 10 times faster than my typing?”
With those adaptations, Mattos has made the campus his launching pad to a greater exploration of what he can do as an aspiring writer, filmmaker and young adult. Because his disability began at birth, caused by his umbilical cord cutting off oxygen, Mattos always has had to push hard to achieve basic milestones of independence. His struggle, supported first by his parents and sister, has strengthened his writing and bolstered his dreams. When his news writing professor asked students for headlines on their life stories, Mattos wrote, “Brazilian wins Oscar for best screenplay.”
Back in Brazil
Mattos, 19, was born in Rio de Janeiro. His parents are engineers who always encouraged his strengths – particularly in school and creative pursuits. The family took a nearly 2,000-mile off-road vacation when Mattos was 13, and afterward his parents suggested he write about it. He looked at writing as a birthright instilled by his grandfather Luis Furtado, who wrote love letters in Portuguese to Mattos’ grandmother. His parents asked a magazine journalist to critique the travel piece. Cristina Taiar was so impressed that she became his writing coach. “Fernando is light, deep and versatile,” she wrote in an e-mail from Brazil. “He can write with a journalistic style if it’s necessary. Or have an eye like a chronicler. Or even charm us with a perfect story… I strongly believe that Fernando’s talent is unique. In some way it would come alive.”
Not long after, the Mattos family moved to Atlanta, where his father, Nilton Mattos, serves as global packaging manager for The Coca-Cola Company. At Elkins Pointe Middle School, Fernando Mattos had to learn English and finish eighth grade in one semester. He got straight A’s.
“We educated him to have dreams and to pave the way to get to them, so they do not become only dreams but actual realizations,” said his father. “He has been dreaming about writing, film, scriptwriting for many years; but he also sets long-term goals for himself, not modest ones, like winning an Oscar. “He knows, and we know that not all dreams will come true, but at least if we do believe that we can make them happen, we will prepare ourselves for that. If the dream comes true we will know that it was not just a matter of luck.” Mattos also shared his knowledge, serving as a volunteer math tutor at a middle school near his house. He also spends vacations at Focus, an organization that supports Atlanta kids with special needs and their families. With his grades and extracurricular achievements, such as a Superior Award from the Georgia Press Association for his work on the school magazine, Mattos had many colleges from which to choose, his parents noted. The Honors funding sweetened the opportunity at GSU. “It’s indeed an honor to be in the Honors College and to have that on my diploma and résumé,” he said.
A new world at GSU
Even with the help from the Staton Office, Mattos faced some basic challenges on campus. “At the beginning of the year, I thought Aderhold was at the end of Atlanta,” he said of the Helen M. Aderhold Learning Center, a central classroom building. “Now I can get there two or three times a day and still have energy.” Around the corner from Aderhold, a new world opened for Mattos – the world of food. Because his fine motor skills – in this case, his ability to grip a utensil, scoop food and bring it to his mouth – are limited, Mattos had eaten hamburgers and simple sandwiches every day. On Broad Street, he set out to explore the culinary possibilities. “I am a big eater… and I began exploring place by place to see what food is harder to eat and what is easier,” he said. “Right now, I like Reuben’s Deli. They have great sandwiches and they know I need help with my Coke and so they come help me to my table. All the places at GSU help me and that makes for a very positive experience… and I always leave tips because people always go the extra mile to help me and because I hate coins.” “Every morning I drop him at GSU, and pick him up late afternoon,” said Nilton Mattos, who drives Fernando’s dark gray 2011 Honda Civic; the two are huge go-kart fiends and Fernando also competes on a racing simulator against online opponents. “Whatever happens during the day, he has to manage by himself… I ask him to drive back home [and] once in a while he declines because he is tired.”
The Staton Office was established through the generosity of Margaret A. Staton (B.A., 1969, M. Ed., 1974), who from age 2 had to use a wheelchair. As a freshman psychology student at GSU, she faced difficulty getting to class in buildings that had no ramps, and she began a campaign that made GSU buildings more accessible to all. Like Mattos, Staton’s father was a Coca-Cola employee; John C. Staton designed the company’s first cooler and developed its first fountain dispenser. Today, Staton lives in California and continues to support the education of disabled students at GSU through the Margaret A. Staton Endowment. The Staton Office’s mission is to create an accessible community where people are judged on their ability, not their disability. The office strives to provide individuals with the tools by which they can accomplish their educational and career goals. Hundreds of students with disabilities have graduated from GSU.
“Fernando is a wonderful person, friendly, funny and focused on doing well at Georgia State University. Our office is very proud of his accomplishments,” said Rodney Pennamon, director of the Staton Office. “He is a fine example of a person that is able to utilize our services and maintain his independence here at GSU. Because Fernando and other students with disabilities have the support and assistive technology here at ODS, accomplishing their educational goals and striving to be like Fernando, getting on the President’s List at GSU for academic excellence is achievable.”
Literary and cinematic attention
During his first semester at GSU, Mattos saw his short story, “Telescope,” published in its original Portuguese and the English translation in the Underground literary journal. “I don’t complain about my disability because of the thousands of things that are much worse,” he said. “We all have to overcome our own challenges.” He works part-time at the Digital Arts and Entertainment Laboratory, has posted other short films on YouTube and is writing a screenplay focused on a father and son. “A film major is risky because it’s such a competitive field,” he pointed out. “You are the best or you are nothing.”
The satisfaction of his story connecting with the audience was confirmed when “Writer’s Block” premiered at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema in June. A viewer told him, “I had to talk to you personally. I kept asking people to be silent when you began speaking [about how the film was made]; I wanted to hear your words. Great job.” Just as all artists are influenced by their personal experiences, Mattos’ says his writing voice and perspective is shaped by his disability. His next film will have disability as a theme, and for the GSU Campus Movie Fest in January, will reunite his GSU-based production team of photographer Colson Peacock and editor/composer Glen Sutton. “I think we have a very strong team, and having them so close at GSU only helps,” Mattos said.
Excerpts from Ferando Mattos’ writing
“I had in my hands the might to rewrite fate. This is an art schools cannot teach and other people cannot fully understand. It transforms, however, a man into a writer.” – from “Coffee and Cake”
“While she described the moon to me, I described the dust that had formed all stars. The stars shining seemed the elect born to shine, and one could easily forget that without many chemical reactions and physical pressures they would fail to live. I told her about the pressures that made a star. I saw a small dust in her eye, shining at me for a brief moment.” – from “Telescope”.
—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424