‘Rocco Up’ Puts Unconditional Love to Film at HIFF

Rocco and his dad at Navy Beach from Rocco Up at HIFF
Rocco and his dad at Navy Beach
John Madere

Emblazoned on the cover of our Hamptons International Film Festival (HIFF) 2022 cover is the image of young Rocco Intonato, a nonverbal boy with autism who is the focus of the new documentary short film Rocco Up. Included in HIFF’s “Shorts Program: Views from Long Island,” the film will see its New York premiere at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 13 and will be screened a second time in East Hampton at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, October 15.

However, the powerful message of this 22-minute film extends far past its two HIFF screenings.

A kid after his dad’s own heart, Rocco loves the ocean and has spent time at the beach with his surfing enthusiast father, Ben Intonato, almost everyday of his life. Unfortunately for Rocco’s passion, some early childhood specialists felt that his core was too weak and his disability too strong to learn how to swim or surf. His parents knew him better.

October 7, 2022 Dan's Papers HIFF cover art featuring Rocco Up at HIFF
October 7, 2022 Dan’s Papers HIFF cover art featuring Rocco Up

Ben & Sara Intonato Discuss “Rocco Up”

“When Rocco was quite young, we had many ‘specialists’ tell us all the things that they thought he would never be able to do,” recalls Sara Intonato, Rocco’s mother and a professional neurodiverse parenting consultant. “Then I’d say to them, ‘Do you want to see a video of him riding a mountain bike on a trail?’ And they were like, ‘What!?’ It was such a comical moment because Ben and I have always treated Rocco like everyone else. We always assumed that he could, and we never believed people when they said he’ll never do X or he’ll never do Y.”

“I felt really good in the ocean, and I felt like he is my son and — they’re telling me that he’s really different from me and he’s going to be so limited but — he’s just like me,” Ben Intonato says. “Why can’t he enjoy the surfing that I’m getting so much presence and enjoyment from as well? Once I got myself present in that mindset and was out on the water with him, I let him express himself and teach me how to do it in a different kind of way.”

Once Rocco’s surf training began, it became clear that not only did traditional surfing techniques not click with him, but he also didn’t connect with methods designed for special needs students either. Instead, he came up with a new style all his own that would allow him to build up his confidence and core strength under his dad’s guidance.

When most surfers go through surf break, they lie on their stomach and paddle through the break. Instead, Rocco stands on the tip of the board and, as his dad pushes the board behind him, he dances back and forth as the board climbs over the break. Rocco’s grandfather, Don Intonato, still remembers the first time he managed to stand up without holding on to Ben.

“Eventually, he lets go of his father’s hair and finally gets up, and the people on Ditch Plains Beach in Montauk started to shout, ‘Rocco up!’” he says. “That was them telling him, ‘Get up, Rocco, get up on the board.’ And that’s how the name (of the film) came about.”

Since Rocco moved with the rest of the Intonato clan from Huntington to Montauk, the seaside community adopted him as one of their own. Everywhere he went, people would greet him with a high-five or a hug, and the local surfers made sure to leave Rocco ample space to practice.

“It was really wonderful to see all the other people who weren’t part of the Intonato family who cared about Rocco and loved seeing his process, and also, other surfers who were aware of the situation made sure they made it easier for Ben and Rocco to surf out there,” Rocco Up filmmaker/director John Madere says. “It can be a rather competitive and a little bit dangerous sport sometimes when it gets crowded, and the fact that everyone knew Rocco and Ben’s story out there, I think that helped to keep them in a safe space and allowed Rocco to grow as a person and as a surfer.”

One Montauk beachgoer who was particularly taken aback by Rocco’s display of determination was Kevin McCann of Ditch Plains Productions LLC who — along with DPP partners Don Intonato, John Madere and Ruth Mamaril, the film’s writer/editor — produced the film. “With the help of the production company and their financing, it allowed us to make Rocco Up a much better film than it could’ve been without that funding,” Madere says.

He recorded thousands of hours of footage over a two-and-a-half-year period, capturing Rocco’s developing skill organically. Now, Rocco’s tip-of-board balance is so good, Montauk surfers want to learn about his custom technique. “He ultimately did achieve the unbelievable balance of traditional surfing that for someone of his level of disability, they would say is not possible,” Ben says.

“Being fully present with the person you’re with — maybe the traditional way of learning doesn’t work for them, it doesn’t mean there’s not another way,” Sara emphasizes. “But you won’t discover that other way until you’re willing to try, and that can feel very vulnerable, can feel like there are a lot of unknowns. It may not work, but it definitely won’t work if you’re unwilling to be fully present with that person and are trying to put them in a box that doesn’t work for them.”

“The photo (on the October 7 Dan’s Papers cover) is actually great, because it shows the uniqueness of what we can learn from special needs people — not just what we can teach them, but what we can learn and observe,” Ben says. “In that shot that I just inadvertently took (with a GoPro), you can see, in him, a calmness. I look at that and I think of the pure joy that he has out there, and he’s doing it in his own unique way, but he really is doing it.”

Thankfully for Ben, that calmness is infectious. When parental anxieties creep in about the challenges Rocco faces or what his future might look like, Ben has discovered that finding his presence in nature helps ground him, as it does Rocco.

“I would almost feel like something was coming over me and wrapping its arms around me, telling me that everything was going to be OK, that I wasn’t alone, that this was a wonderful thing and Rocco is this unbelievable gift,” he says of the rejuvenating experience. “People would pat me on the back and say, ‘Oh, it’s so great you’re doing this with your son,’ and I get that, but it’s been just as much of a therapy for me too.”

This method of being present in nature is one that Ben advocates for due to its inspiring success with Rocco, and he hopes to see it help other parents deepen the bonds with their children, especially those with special needs.

"Rocco Up" HIFF film
“Rocco Up”John Madere

“If you’re dealing with a challenge, or maybe you’re intimidated by someone who has a challenge — whether it’s a sickness or a disability — there’s a formula in place that I really feel that Rocco, Montauk, my family and the community showed me. Go out into nature and find presence there. Bring that person who you want to rise up out there with you,” he says. “When that happens, then unconditional love can totally flow, and then from that unconditional love, there’s a rising up. Teaching and healing are accepted by both people, and eventually (your spirits) both go up.”

Ben continues, “Living out east has this real gift of nature here, and I think this gift of nature and being physical in it helps people be present. You can tell someone to be present, but what does that even mean? I can’t do that on the spot. But I can go surfing, and when I’m surfing in nature and the beautiful waters of Long Island, that’s what shows me what presence is. … It’s about becoming your best self and then saying, ‘Hey, take my hand. I want to show you where I found this joy. Let’s be joyous together.”

While Ben connected with Rocco via the ocean, and aquatic therapy is considered effective for children with autism, he adds that other outdoor or focused activities should prove helpful in connecting with a child, as long as parents meet their child where they’re at.

“That’s ‘Rocco Up,’ man. It doesn’t just have to be in the ocean,” he says. “It can happen for anybody. I am not an especially great surfer, not at all. There’s nothing unique about me other than that I’m a very lucky person to be surrounded by an incredible wife, incredible family and incredible community, and I have this incredible son. Somewhere in that whole mix, that melting pot, this formula came about.”

While Ben isn’t a professional neurodiverse parenting consultant, he is eager to use Rocco Up as a platform to inspire parents and educators with the formula that has worked so well with Rocco (because he helped invent it). And Sara, who is a professional NPC, would like to share insightful resources as well.

Parents can reach out to Ben at [email protected] and Sara at [email protected], and they can listen to Sara’s “Full Potential: Thriving with Neurodiversities Podcast” at podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-full-potential-thriving-with/id1567436660.

“I have come out of the water and heard people cheering for this kid, and I’m just feeling like my heart is going to explode. I hope this inspires people to volunteer to work with special needs kids or to want to get their careers involved with special needs kids, especially here out east where we need more of those people to do these things,” Ben says. “I’m not saying this film is going to do that overnight, but it could help out a little bit. And maybe it could even start something that helps out a lot.”

For tickets to Rocco Up at the Hamptons International Film Festival, visit filmguide.hamptonsfilmfest.org/events/roccoup. After HIFF, Ditch Plains Productions LLC is looking to get Rocco Up on a streaming service; check roccoup.com for updates and more information.

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