2024 Hot Docs 'Ari's Theme': Composer with rare genetic condition creates a musical legacy based on memories

34-year-old Canadian Ari Kinarthy, who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, takes us on a musical journey through this life

While 34-year-old Ari Kinarthy has a rare genetic condition, Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2, that hasn't stopped him from being able to compose music, featured in the documentary Ari's Theme, part of the 2024 Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. In the film, we see Kinarthy create compositions based on impactful moments throughout his life.

"We would ask Ari for memories, or things that he felt were impactful moments in his life," co-director Jeff Petry explained to Yahoo Canada. "He would tell us the stories, we would ask him to write music about it, and we would go back and create the cinematic moments around it."

As Petry explained, he and co-director Nathan Drillot first became familiar with Kinarthy reading a story about him in a local publication in Victoria, B.C. They saw this as an opportunity to make a film that wasn't just an interview-based documentary, but a story told through "the language of music."

"Ari was very upfront from the very beginning about his desire to have the opportunity to make music that would impact people, and more deeply, to pursue this creation of a legacy," Petry said. "We found that part to be the extra layer that we needed to really dive in together."

Kinarthy's Spinal Muscular Atrophy Type 2 means that his muscles are progressively deteriorating, shortening his life. When he was 16 years-old, Kinarthy lost the ability to move his arms, but music therapy led to his journey as a composer.

"I didn't know that it was real at first, it felt like a dream," Kinarthy said about scoring this documentary. "Because I've always wanted to write music for a film or some visual media, something that I could install my music on, and it will last forever."

Ari in a recording session with musicians at the Alix Goolden Performance Hall.
Ari in a recording session with musicians at the Alix Goolden Performance Hall.

Different elements in Ari's Theme include Kinarthy composing and working with musicians playing his music, and Kinarthy recalling key moments of this life. But something that stands out in this film is how it's a particularly dynamic retelling of Kinarthy's life. This includes funnier moments, like Kinarthy talking about his best friend Nick who punched him one day after Ari was teasing him. But Kinarthy says he was "so happy," because for the first time he felt what it was like to be regarded without any notion of his disability.

"My friendship with Nick was something quite special. ... we just were completely inseparable," Kinarthy said. "When I pitched the idea to Jeff and Nathan about my friendship with Nick, it grew into a powerful scene."

"I still have contact with Nick and he saw the film recently, and he actually cried, which made me cry. It was a beautiful moment and I'm really happy I got to include something like that. ... It's also really funny."

"When we were talking about the beautiful relationship between Nick and Ari, we were trying to figure out, OK how do we convey this, because it's one thing to just say, 'I had this wonderful relationship,' but how do you depict that in film? And how do you tell a story around it?" Petry added.

"I think it was probably like the sixth or seventh time we were talking about Nick and Ari that Ari mentioned this punch story, and I was just like, Oh my god, this is it. This is so funny and so great, and not expected, and something that's so deeply meaningful to him to come out of something so funny. It was really, really interesting."

Composer Ari Kinarthy in the Alix Goolden Performance Hall.
Composer Ari Kinarthy in the Alix Goolden Performance Hall.

In terms of tapping into those personal moments, Kinarthy found that the more emotional memories were easier to compose.

"I wrote music about my parents, which was very important to me to write that piece, that came to me really easily, I think I wrote most of that in like 20 minutes or so," Kinarthy said.

"I did a piece about dreams and video games, that one was a little bit more challenging, because perhaps I just wasn't able to connect emotionally enough. ... To go back into my memory and relive these moments, separate from writing music, that was a little bit challenging for some parts. Just to kind of remember the bad stuff, the emotional stuff."

Ultimately, Kinarthy hopes to be able to have this legacy of his work and his memories, but also to inspire and have his music impact people.

"There's a lot of stuff about my family and if they see that and then they realize how important family is, and they take that with them, that would mean a lot to me," Kinarthy said. "Or just being inspired to follow their dream and not to give up. "

"As an addition to that, humming my melodies and my tunes, that would be unbelievable, ... and I kind of create connections, that would be awesome."