Pride and Prejudice

By Julie McNamara

freaks-tod-browning-2.jpgFreaks, dir. Tod Browning, 1932

At London’s 4th Disability Film Festival, Sisters  and brothers  are doing it for themselves when it comes to representing disability on screen

When it comes to representation on film, disabled people are frequently fodder for the fetishist or the plastic surgeon. Too often the focus is on the tragic but brave survivors of grotesquerie. The power of the gaze, or in some cases, the intrusive glare, is firmly located with non-disabled voyeurs. Rarely do we come across cinema with powerful representation of disabled people, where the impairment fades into the background, unless disabled filmmakers or allies have made that film.

All too often, big budget movies where disability is a central theme have fallen into the practice of using non-disabled actors ‘cripping up’ in lead roles. Disabled performers, who it can be argued would be better placed to portray the experience of a particular impairment or condition, are left in the cold. Are we supposed to believe that non-disabled actors are better at expressing the often harsh reality of life in a disabling world? Dustin Hoffman in Rainman, Tom HanksForrest Gump, Daniel Day-Lewis playing Christy Brown in My Left Foot; on it goes... Even Russell Crowe swears his insomnia during the making of A Beautiful Mind was attributable to ‘the process of getting into the role of a schizophrenic genius’. How Stanislavski! This is stretching suspension of disbelief and the glories of method acting too far.

This distorted portrayal of disabled people on-screen was one of the main motivations behind the London Disability Arts Forum’s (LDAF) desire to establish a Disability Film Festival (LDFF) in London. There are many talented disabled filmmakers in the UK and beyond, but few platforms readily available for the screening of their films. Disability as a theme may not necessarily be central to these bodies of work, but where it is, the lead roles are portrayed by disabled actors. The power of an authentic voice telling the story cannot be denied.

my-one-legged-dream-lover-penny-fowler-smith-chrstine-olsen.jpgMy One-legged Dream Lover, Penny Fowler-Smith & Christine Olsen, 1999

The London festival is one of a growing number of similar events around the world. GaGa in Berlin and Munich’s The Way We Live were both launched last year. Canada’s Picture This is two years old. The US has Super Fest, Moscow runs a festival while Finland holds two: Threshold in Helsinki and Shooting Stars in Tampere. Significantly, apart from Super Fest, each of these festivals is run by non-disabled people. The majority of film submissions are similarly weighted. This is not the case with the LDAF or the LDFF, both of which, like the US event, are run entirely by disabled artists.

The seeds of a possible London gathering were first shown back in 1998, when I visited Turin’s dubiously titled Cinema de Handicap - Noi Gli Altri (We the Others). What excited me most about the festival was the quality of work from the UK. Four British films collected prizes: Ray Harrison-Graham’s Off Limits, Strong Language (his recent Dream On won a BAFTA last year); Jenni Meredith’s fine animated poem Through the Pane; Iain Piercy and Project Ability’s delightful docudrama Elvis Lives, pursuing a group of learning-disabled Elvis fans obsessed with the reincarnation of their hero and finally Chris Ledger’s Moving from Within, charting the rise of disability arts culture in the UK.

In conversation with these filmmakers in Italy, I learnt of the dearth of opportunities for disabled filmmakers in the UK. Some six months after Turin, with the considerable help of filmmaker Caglar Kimyoncu, we launched Lifting The Lid! the first Disability Film Festival in London at Hoxton’s Lux cinema. Each year since then it has grown, in the number of submissions, in audience terms and in its range of programming.

This June we promoted the work of 64 disabled filmmakers across four days at London’s National Film Theatre. For the first time we were able to provide a full programme of audio-described films for blind and visually impaired viewers; maintained a team of sign-language interpreters and used soft titling on screen for deaf viewers. The venue’s accessibility was also improved (a lasting contribution is the newly-built stage-access ramp in NFT2).

disability-capture-rap-jerry-smith-cheryl-marie-wade.jpgDisability Culture Rap, dir. by Jerry Smith & Cheryl Marie Wade, 1998

The festival launched with Born Freak, a Channel 4 commission directed by Paul Sapin and produced by Mat Fraser. A powerful documentary looking back over the history of disabled people in entertainment, it’s a sympathetic view of the ‘freak show’ tradition. Screening alongside was Tod Browning’s Freaks, made in 1932 and hidden from public view for some thirty years. This feature follows the lives of a group of performers – all played by disabled actors – in a travelling circus who enact murderous revenge on behalf of one of their number who is publicly humiliated. It’s a remarkable piece of work and way ahead of its time, treating its subject with great grace and humanity. This was also the case with Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety’s stunning feature The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun. Following a disabled girl who earns her living selling newspapers on the streets, it’s dignified, affectionate and beautifully shot.

Certain titles have over the years received particular attention, like firm festival and audience favourite The Real Helen Keller, Liz Crow and Ann Pugh’s flesh-and-blood portrayal of Helen Keller, previously – and patronisingly – hailed as America’s tragic icon. A vivid documentary portrait of a passionate woman who found her way firmly onto the FBI’s ‘wanted’ list for her political activism and radical views on feminism, race issues and civil rights, it features fascinating material previously suppressed by the US authorities and the Keller family.

American issues surfaced in another popular work: Jerry Smith and Cheryl Marie Wade’s Disability Culture Rap, a fast-moving and entertaining magazine-style doc on disability arts and the rising disabled people’s movement in America which strips back layers of prejudice with a feisty humour. Meanwhile, Penny Fowler-Smith and Christine Olsen’s My One-Legged Dream Lover follows amputee love goddess Kath Duncan on a journey into sexual fantasy and self-discovery. Moving between the seedy world of amputee devotees and the politicised coalition of American amputees, she is worshipped by the fetishists and frowned upon by the politically punitive. This is a provocative and honest search for answers in a world governed by the culture of the body beautiful, where women are still often viewed as fodder for a fuck.

regarding-the-fall-bill-shannon.jpgRegarding the Fall, dir. by Bill Shannon, 1999

Putting such screenings in context, the issue of non-disabled actors playing lead disabled roles came up in one of the central festival discussions. It was almost painful to watch Martin Head (Series Editor, Vee-TV) shot down in flames even as Simon Dickson (Commissioning Editor, Channel 4) sung his praises for the ‘brilliantly executed’ and award-winning Celebrity Blind Man’s Buff. Clearly both had missed the point. This programme featured three known TV personalities who were left blindfolded, but with a cane or guide dog, to find their way back to London. Each of these protagonists then met with a real blind person on the final haul to their destination. The declared aim was to raise awareness about the experience of being visually impaired in public places. Elsewhere it may have aroused voyeuristic interest, perhaps even (unsolicited) compassion, but the audience of disabled filmmakers present, including several blind and visually-impaired professionals, was outraged. When Head tentatively aired the idea of following this format with a Celebrity Wheelchair Challenge, there was complete derision from the crowd, with one person wondering aloud if they were going to medicate a few fading stars with psychotropic drugs next and watch them disintegrate into schizophrenia.

There is clearly still much work to be done in changing entrenched attitudes to disability and giving disabled film-makers genuine access to broadcast and exhibition outlets. On a positive note, Channel 4 and LWT have offered to create internships for disabled filmmakers, an important avenue to pursue as there is still so little opportunity for training. The longer-term festival intention is to programme an annual fortnight of films, debates, networking sessions and production workshops. This is Disability Culture, coming at you from the inside out!

The Disability Film Festival welcomes submissions, particularly feature films. If the filmmaker is not disabled, there must be evidence of significant creative involvement by disabled people. Please contact LDAF, Diorama Arts Centre, 34 Osnaburgh Street, NW1 3ND. Tel: 020 7916 5484.

Julie McNamara is Director of the London Disability Arts Forum.