In 1994, Juan Angel Ruiz was involved in a devastating car wreck. In the first terrifying moments after regaining consciousness in his hospital bed, Juan Angel tried to look around the room. "I opened my eyes. The light over my bed blinded me. It was too bright," he says in A Step From Heaven, the new documentary based on his experiences.
But it wasn't just his eyes. His entire body seemed different. The accident had caused traumatic spinal damage, leaving him a quadriplegic with no hope of recovery. It was a miracle that he had even survived, because, as a doctor notes in the film: "Almost 100 percent of those with this kind of injury die at the moment of the accident."
Amazingly, Juan Angel not only survived, he thrived. Despite early prognoses of only three or four months, he pushed forward. Juan Angel says: "To succeed with what I had, I never thought about dying." And so, he became a motivational speaker, founded JuanAngel.org
, and recruited Mexican director Vidal Cantu, actor Eduardo Verástegui
, artist Romero Britto
, and Emilio and Gloria Estefan
to help make A Step From Heaven
A few days ago, the New Times spoke with Vidal Cantu by phone about Juan Angel, his story, and the film he inspired.
New Times: This documentary focuses on Juan Angel Ruiz, who is he?
Vidal Cantu: Juan Angel Ruiz is a man from Monterrey, Mexico. He is a very well known activist who had a car accident 16 years ago. He lost the ability to move or even breathe on his own because he sustained this very serious injury to his cervical vertebrae number one and number two.
How did A Step From Heaven first evolve into a film project?
My partner and I were finishing a movie that we were producing, The Perfect Game, the first Hollywood movie shot here in Monterrey. And Juan Angel invited us to have a meeting. He asked us to make a film based on his project, which spreads this message of hope that life is worth living no matter the circumstance.
So were you immediately willing to get involved?
At first, we said to Juan Angel that we don't produce documentaries, we are mainly focused on fiction content. But as the weeks passed and we became friends, I realized Juan Angel's story was very powerful. He had a very positive attitude and many friends. He loved life. So a couple of months later, I decided to direct this documentary.
There are a number of celebrities in this film. At what point did they join the project?
We asked Juan Angel which personalities he wanted to provide narration or music or art for the movie. And immediately Juan Angel said Gloria Estefan. He told me that when he had his accident, he would listen to the song "Reach," which was written for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. At that time, it became very clear for Juan Angel that the message of that song was hope. It brought hope to him.
Were you already friendly with Gloria or Emilio Estefan?
At that moment, we didn't have any connection with the Estefans. But we told Juan Angel: OK, we're going to find out how we can get in contact with them. And a couple of weeks later, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Eduardo Verástegui. I told Eduardo Juan Angel's story and he said that he was very close friends with the Estefans.
Eduardo ended up being the key to bringing the Estefans on board, then?
Yes. A little while later, we traveled to Miami for a meeting with Emilio and Gloria. Emilio arrived first and as soon as he saw this video we prepared for them, he jumped out of the chair and said: "Come with me. I'm sure Gloria will be happy to participate." And at that precise moment, Gloria was arriving at the building. She saw the video and immediately said: "I'm on it. I will support this project."
A Step From Heaven, Dir. Vidal Cantu, 54 minutes, Spanish with English subtitles. Screening Tuesday, March 9 at 6:30 p.m., Gusman Center (174 E. Flagler St., Miami). 305-405-MIFF; miamifilmfestival.com.