Voices: Finally, there’s a film which accurately depicts disability
There is a scene in I Didn’t See You There in which the screen goes dark and the superlative new documentary film’s director and star Reid Davenport screams “f***!” Then he shouts “f***” again.
Davenport, who uses a powered wheelchair, has been trying to get into his apartment in Oakland, California. Someone has strung a fat cable across the way making that impossible. Come on! The man is just trying to deal with a customer.
You can’t do that, Davenport says, understandably annoyed because he now can’t get home. I live here. Yes, but I’m just trying to deal with a customer. I’m only going to be 15 minutes.
Safely inside, the screen goes dark. Cue furious release.
That right there is the confirmation (if you needed it) that Davenport has encapsulated the experience of disabled people in a way that rarely, if ever, appears on screen.
Those of us living with disability have all been there at some point. For some of us, it is a near-everyday occurrence. That’s why, rather than focus on Davenport, the camera puts the viewer in the wheelchair with him, having viewers see what he sees as he deals with challenges the average able-bodied person wouldn’t normally understand or appreciate.
As I watched it, I wanted to scream along with him. I’ve experienced many of those same challenges, and reliving them isn’t pleasant. That isn’t a knock on the film, by the way. On the contrary; those moments are what make it such necessary viewing.
Davenport cites the importance of living in an area with a decent system of public transportation so he can get around. But at the same time, he is treated as an inconvenience and annoyance by an assortment of patronising and rude people whose job it is to help him stay mobile.
Assistance that is necessary and should be freely provided frequently leaves disabled people stranded in a nightmarish hellscape.
The flip side of that coin are the unwanted offers of help when you are just going about your business.
“I’m not going anywhere, I don’t need help”, he says when asked where he is going and if he needs assistance in the street. Of course he doesn’t. Sometimes when you’re using a conveyance (manually pushed in my case) you occasionally need to a break just as you would when walking, but you can’t even do that without people talking down to you and assuming there’s an issue.
Sometimes you are ignored; people look through you. Sometimes the problem is the people who do see you in a literal sense, but don’t see you as a person. You are gawked at – and in the process othered and dehumanised.
Davenport reflects, through the course of the film, on the history of the freak show. He’s from Bethel, Connecticut, otherwise known as the birthplace of PT Barnum, so it fits. There is a circus big top in Oakland visible in many of the shots.
The filmmaker muses on the way individuals deemed to be atypical were once put on display for the amusement of a paying public. He reflects on his filmmaking practice, and its focus on disability. Even though he is never seen on camera, this is still a very personal film.
Writing just a week after the Oscars handed its Best Actor award to Brendan Fraser for wearing a fat suit and sitting in a wheelchair he has no need for in The Whale, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the modern-day freak show that Hollywood indulges in. It uses disability as a prop, or a plot point. It has able-bodied actors “crip up” (starving disabled performers of opportunities). It is the world’s biggest and most profitable freak show.
But Davenport’s film is most effective in its honest and unflinching portrayal of everyday life for a disabled person.
It is showing at the Barbican in London in relaxed screenings as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival on Monday, 20 March at midday and Sunday, 26 March at the same time. It deserves an audience.
If I were made king of the world for a couple of hours I would have every MP, every councillor, every architect, every hospital CEO, every transport boss, every civil servant, every official, every train and bus driver, every airport worker – hell, every able-bodied person who deals with disabled people – watch this film.
This is what it’s like. This is the kind of thing we have to put up with. This is why, at the end of the day, sometimes in the middle of the day, sometimes barely an hour into the morning, we’re reduced to finding a dark room in which to scream.