REELABILITIES FILM FESTIVAL COLUMBUS 2012:
“Men sometimes confess they love war because it puts them in touch with the experience of being alive. In going to the office every day, you don't get that experience, but suddenly, in war, you are ripped back into being alive. Life is pain; life is suffering; and life is horror -- but, by God, you are alive.”
- Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, pg. 102
Followers of this blog know that I’ve been following VSA’s ReelAbilities Columbus. I was able to see three different movies, each dealing with a different perspectives on many disabilities. The first was an American film being shown at the Columbus Museum of Modern Art called Warrior Champions, about soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq to compete for America in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. There are three main soldiers represented: Scott, Michelle, and Carlos. There were also others who didn’t make it in, and you see their journey as well, which is a hero’s journey in the true Campbellian sense: sacrificing yourself for a Greater Good.
The film begins with the soldiers explaining how they got injured. Most were from roadside bombs or IEDs. I was amazed here how casually the soldiers discussed their injuries. Melissa starts off by showing people her American flag-colored prothestic leg, and saying “There’s my blood.” Kortney, another hopeful explains that since he didn’t feel pain during the blast, he’s sure none of the others did either. That seemed to ease their pain a bit. Another veteran battles depression and says he can’t watch his own injury being reported on TV. So, Scott visits his house to try and get him out of depression. For Scott, sports is a way of giving back to his community.
So, in that way going to the Olympics is a way for him to go back to the war with his friends, and give back to his community. Every soldier mentions that they feel a comraderie with fellow soldiers that can’t be replicated, and they want to go back: “I fought for my country in Iraq, and now I’m gonna fight for it in Beijing.” says Scott. Scott is a wheelchair user, and throws the discus. I was amazed by the way he throws his whole body into the effort. As I mentioned, there were a few competitors who didn’t make it; Scott’s depressed friend is one of them. But, he found new freedom through sports.
Scott and Carlos end up training together. Like Scott, Carlos uses a wheelchair and is a veteran. But, unlike him, he is more focused on making the team than giving back to the community and teaching sports. This is their one opportunity to prove that they aren’t broken and give back to their community. Carlos and Scott train in a gym and sleep in a place that has little more than a fridge. Overall, the movie was a fine display of military culture and discipline as well as disability culture.
Then, after training, the soldiers are selected to go to Beijing, except for Kortney, a man with a prosthetic leg who didn’t make the long jump. But, Melissa goes with the two others. Their time in Beijing is marked by culture shock and exhaustion, but they politely greet passers-by and even tour the Great Wall. The depth of emotion in this movie is what stuck out to me. They’re not only soldiers, they are Olympians, and even though none of them win, nobody could take that away. The discussion afterwards was also an emotional rollercoaster: different vets, some disability professionals, and different coping mechanisms displayed; but all united by the common bond of disability. Though sometimes radically unique stories! That’s the kind of intercultural discourse I like to see.
NOTE: The opening speaker gave a speech on historical representations of disability in the media, claiming it was based on a “cure/kill” model of disability, and that disability culture needs to outgrow “overcoming”. I have never heard of this model in my research. I would’ve loved to talk about it. My model was based in part on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, who taught that Man is something to overcome. Everyone must overcome themselves, in contrast. Can anyone say for certain where the cure/kill model comes from? Let me know.
Shameless: The ART of Disability
“We want people to understand that Bonnie Klein the filmmaker, is still Bonnie Klein the filmmaker.”
- Catherine Frazee, poet, discussing the title of Shameless: The ART of Disability
As a writer/artist myself, I really liked this movie. First, we meet Bonnie Klein, and she explains that even though she prefers to promote positive images of disability, she conscious of wanting to look good. We are then introduced to her friends who are disabled. Dave the comedian, who has a disfigured face, Catherine, with spinal atrophy. The dancer, Geoff, has a spinal cord injury. They begin by discussing Hollywood stereotypes of disability placed on a bingo card.
Now, there are some funny parts in this movie, (like Dave’s comedy act “The Church of 80% sincerity.) but the rest of the movie is a fairly deep discussion of how each artist interprets his or her own experience of disability through their art. This is fundamentally what I struggle with as well, as an artist. How much of our art is meant to be an experience of disability culture? How much of my writing abandons the notion of disability culture altogether? The answer I think is that the concept of culture is dependent on the environment surrounding it. For example, I was pleased to see an Episode of Star Trek TNG (“Ethics”) included, where Worf the Klingon officer, is injured and doesn’t want to live with a disability. Or several classics like “Heidi”, which were also criticized. Strong reminders that film is a product of its time. The movie then, follows an exploration of each of the artists individual lives and how their art represents their experience.
We start with David’s experience. His “Church of 80% Sincerity” comedy act which focuses on his face, and his impressions of movie monsters, with the ending of it being that you realize that maybe you’re (the non-disfigured) the monster. Dave goes a long way towards normalizing humor and disability, and liked that particularly.
He gets into a scuffle with an agent who says he shouldn’t focus the act on his face. But that raises the question: is the agent ignoring disability culture, or does Dave rely too much on it? Eventually, they work out the act in such a way that Dave’s humor and face both come through.
Then, we have Bonnie’s story. Bonnie was a feminist director who made “Not A Love Story”. After a stroke, her family supported her, and her husband stayed with her. The question for her was how to stay strong, and be supported by her family. Eventually, she finds that art, film, and dance are useful therapies; in much the same way I do. She found that her disabled friends led her back to film.
Catherine Frazee is a poet who talks about her doubts of getting involved in social activism, which I thought was particularly poignant since I experience these doubts as well. Who am I to represent my culture’s experience? The answer is of course that like Catherine, I make my art for myself, and it happens to speak to a collective. Afterwards, much like in Bonnie’s story, how she is supported by her partner.
Overall the movie is a good investigation into the roots of disability culture as a lived individual experience, and using art to convey that vs. preconceived notions of disability. It asks the right questions. It provides pointers in the ways that creativity can enrich the lives of those within the disabled community. I suppose one criticism I have would be that Bonnie Klein already has an established community of disabled friends, which may not be entirely representative of the greater community.
NOTE ON SPEAKERS: The speakers here were artists. A poet read some poems on oppression. I found the poems were well-meaning, if not representative of actual experience. As an ethnographer, which is really my field, I would never presume to write about Mohammad’s journey to Medina, or the French Revolution; I can’t say what that’s like. My idea would be: “Gee, let’s ask a Muslim. (or a Frenchman.) Let’s get some representatives of real experiences of those identities.” But, poetry allows us to lie imaginatively. Never let poets lie to you; especially about oppression lest we become blind to real experiences of it, or think of it as “noble”. Overcoming oppression, yes, that’s noble, not oppression itself.
That said, the rest of the panel could be said to be in many ways an answer to the previous speakers “cure/kill” conception of disability. The actors in the panel, one of which had no hands, emphasized that non-disabled actors should be given equal opportunity to play disabled parts; the previous speaker spoke against this. I was really struck by the variety of viewpoints that can be lumped under “disability theory”. The panel pointed out that non-disabled actors sometimes open opportunities for disabled ones, such as Dustin Hoffman’s method acting in Rain Man that won an Oscar and raised autism awareness. The previous “cure/kill” speaker especially mentioned Hoffman’s performance as de-legitimizing to real disabled actors. In general, I agree with the real actors, with the caveat that it represent real experience.
I was happy to receive a little gift bag in a raffle when I entered the theater. Thanks, Erin! That being said, this film from Belgium was a treat for me to watch. Not because of the subject matter, (bullying an autistic kid to death.) But, because it seemed to be representing real experience through film and fantasy. Indeed, we were later informed that it was based on a true story; changed to end happily. The film is through Ben’s perspective, as he struggles to understand “normal people” at school and in his life.
Ben seeks escape through a World of Warcraft-type computer game from the world he can’t understand. The game makes sense to him; even makes him a hero. All he sees in the normal world is “the jerk in the mirror.” In the game world, you can be anything, and there are clear goals. The film does a good job representing Ben’s perspective of the game which he transfers into the confusing normal world.
We see close-ups of parts of people’s faces which he can process. This gives you some idea of his disability and confusion understanding “normal people”. He is routinely picked on by a bully named Bogart and his cohort. One day, in what I assume is a Theology class, Ben X hears about Jesus’s last hours; and others’ mock it and throw spit wads at Ben. This culminates in Ben standing on a desk and forced to strip by the bullies after class, which in then posted all over the internet; his usual escape.
Ben’s mother seeks help for the bullying (which Ben doesn’t communicate.) and sees the usual professionals. However, since Ben is mostly non-verbal, there’s nothing they can do. Even though I’m not autistic, I felt deeply for Ben. I’m an escapist too; seeking though I do to represent real experience. I know how hard it can be to just live life when people around you always fight, and don’t understand. I also understand isolation…needing escape from reality.
Anyway, in another scene, the bullying intensifies. Bogart and his bully buddy attack Ben. They are then represented in Ben’s mind as trolls in-game. He tries to strike back with a crucifix-dagger he made in shop class. (Or as Ben insists, bought for 250 gold in-game.) But, they rob him of that and take his cell phone, tease him, spit in his mouth, and make him take LSD.(!) Ben misses his “always-there” bus. I also know the struggle to keep a schedule; and one little mishap can be a serious blow to dignity.
This, I think, highlights the importance of his loss of dignity. He has lost the drive to even care (or understand!) that this is bullying. High as a kite, Ben tearfully tells his mother that it only looks like he doesn’t understand feelings, but he tries.
Later, he devises his “endgame” and tries to get in contact with his in-game healer (A girl named Scarlite.) in-real-life. He goes to the train station, but can’t focus enough on her to say anything to her. Even worse, his bullies show up there, as they knew of his plans. So, Ben does not focus or say anything even as he sits right next to Scarlite. There goes a finger; an eye; the neck. She passes him by.
But, as he does in-game and in-real-life, he transfers her from his mind into parts of his real life that he can’t deal with. That’s part of his escapism; I was surprised no one in the audience got that, but more on the speakers later. The imaginary Scarlite takes him to a diner and tells him that he’s a hero and shouldn’t end his life. Instead, he fakes his death, taking inspiration from Jesus; and is in a sense reborn. Just like spawning and re-spawning in-game. Before beginning this new life, he brings his bullies to justice. Unfortunately, we were later told that in the true story, he committed suicide.
NOTES ON SPEAKERS: Unfortunately, after being exposed to these film images which closely mirror my own experiences of isolation, escapism (which was intensified by Ben being mostly non-verbal!) and bullying(!) I was disappointed that these topics were scarcely addressed, and I’m ashamed to say I didn’t speak out. The poet concentrated on how it was just a movie (Far-be-it for me to abase a poet on that exact same lie.) but it was meant to represent a real story, which happened. Bullying happens. Escapism happens. A few more suggested that Ben’s escapism was not only autism(!) but psychosis in an attempt to make disabled people look dangerous.(!) I’ll bet money these speakers were not gamers.
He who has no real experience of bullying, will not get this movie. Only a romantic notion called “oppression“. When I see bullies spit in a person’s mouth and force him to take LSD, I flashback to people laughing at me, trying to startle me, covering me with duct-tape, waving my underwear through a dorm hallway, leaving me in my own filth only to prove a point. That’s real oppression.
I was the weird kid who spoke the weird language (German, and this film also brought that back to me; the isolation of every now and then understanding Flemmish.), and kept to himself. (Star Trek, sci-fi, and my studies being my own escapism: at any moment, I could be a starship captain, a cyborg, or a 19th century German, where I was treated with respect.) In this instance, seeing no addressing of the practical use of escapism (Especially for a non-verbal autistic!) it made it hard to speak, because one memory of discrimination recalls all others. Bullying culture exists too. Also, from my knowledge of German, I think the title may be a play on words. It can refer to Ben’s screen name, or his loneliness. Ben X= bin nichts. I am nothing. If the Flemmish is closely related. Every now and then, I would catch a word or three. But, in many ways this film was a brilliant answer to the previous one, where a disabled community of friends is already established. Hostility reigns instead of hospitality, and that makes it more real to my experience; though I have an artist’s perspective, and function (in theory) socially “better” than Ben.
In conclusion, I was shocked at the variety of conflicting viewpoints on disability. I had never known so many existed! “Cure/Kill”, “Oppression”, (poetic as opposed to real.), “imposter’s syndrome”. These are new concepts to me, and some I must admit, completely foreign. While I possess little knowledge of these concepts, I do know films can allow us transcendence of disability theory; that is to become more than one was before through a viewing experience, regardless of preconceptions. That was what I ultimately take away from the ReelAbilities Film Fest.
Especially on Veterans’ Day, we need to remember that we have to strive to become more than what we appear to be. And in the words of JFK “We chose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” As regular readers know, I am wary of assigning any culture as Capital D.C. “Disability Culture”. It is rather an expression of the social environment in which it takes place. Warrior Champions for example was a fine expression of military/disability culture. Shameless, an artistic one. Ben X, on gaming and escapism. But, here I will finally make an exception. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard. I must challenge all people with disabilities to unite not on the basis of abilities, but on what makes us unique. Disability Culture must in a sense overcome itself. This is not to say that abilities don’t inform our identities. Certainly, they do. And this is not to diminish our individual efforts; they are our own tragedies and triumphs, and if we don’t record them, History will move on without us. But, what I’m saying is that if there is ever to be a Civil Rights type Disability Movement (of which, I am doubtful; Disability being to varied and growing up around different cultures. That is, in my opinion not being specifically a culture in itself.) we must decide once and for all what we value.
The criterion must not just be disability; it should also address real injustices. We cannot afford exclusion or romanticism. Able-bodied actors should be allowed to represent our experiences as well. If Johnny Depp wanted to get my message out to the world, I’d let him do it, and relive my experience. One experience is all we have. If we are to form a massive Disability Culture, we must to some extent sacrifice our individual theories, and focus on our limits as well as success. It would not be easy, because every group sees injustices in other ways, and we mustn’t become Pollyannas. Nor should we become exclusionary! And that, my friends, can be expressed in films, and the experiences relived. But, I struggle with my doubt: my impression is that everyone is so unique, that images such as film are the only way to express such conflicting views and feelings; around a central theme: Disability! In this respect, ReelAbilities is a start, but not an end, and I should like to see many more.