Crip Commentary: Laura Hershey's Weekly Web Column

Laura Hershey's Weekly Web Column

Column from October 25, 1999

Crip Critic Goes to the Movies

Copyright 1999 by Laura Hershey

I always look forward eagerly to the annual Denver International Film Festival (DIFF). I love movies, and I especially love the opportunity to see movies that will never open at the local multiplex: independent U.S. films, foreign films and - my favorite of all - documentaries. Every year, as soon as the festival schedule comes out, I study it avidly, searching for interesting subjects and themes. I'm particularly drawn to films exploring cultural conflicts, social justice issues and, of course, disability.

Here, I'm going to write about two movies that I saw at this October's festival. Perhaps they will find their way to other festivals, or to public television, or to the video section of your local library. If so, I encourage you to see one, and to avoid the other. The first is a British documentary that tells true, compelling, complex stories, contradicting the standard myths about people with disabilities. The other, an American short drama, goes the opposite direction: It fictionalizes a real character and creates a romantic and dangerous lie.

The Disabled Century, my favorite film of the festival, is actually four 30-minute episodes of a series made for the BBC by David Hevey. This talented, committed filmmaker has been featured at DIFF before. Last year, in fact, he appeared in person at the screening of several of his short films, including Freak Out and Boo! He has a deep understanding of the distorted social attitudes and media images which oppress people with disabilities. He has developed unique, creative methods to illuminate the real lives of real disabled people.Photo from The Disabled Century

By interviewing people of all ages who have lifelong disabilities, Hevey reveals a side of history that's rarely covered in history books. Their oral histories paint a full picture, both factual and emotional. Hevey's cinematic technique enhances the storytelling. Intense, uncompromising close ups allow the audience to take in every hard-earned wrinkle and scar, every flicker of memory. Settings are chosen carefully to highlight where each narrator came from, and/or where they are now. Several people relate their years of institutionalization, recalling that life-stunting existence while actually walking the grounds or the corridors of their former "homes." One woman talks movingly about growing up a limbless symbol of the "thalidomide scare." She recalls her quest for independence and identity while sitting on the floor surrounded by cast-off prosthetic limbs. Another recalls her struggle, years ago, to leave an institution and to live independently with her then-new husband. She sits in her apartment; and as she talks, the camera gathers in her whole environment, all the photos and mementos that make her house a real home.

Another innovative technique involves projecting archival film footage directly onto people's faces and bodies. This creates a fascinating effect, a visual link between past and present. It also sends a powerful message: Hevey is reminding us that history is not an abstract concept, which can be reduced to timelines and academic language. Rather, it is about human beings, people with bodies, people living in houses or apartments or hospitals, struggling to get a job, to survive, to define themselves.

Going beyond just the obvious subjects for disability history, Hevey offers a broad panorama of 20th-century social life in England. For example, disabled veterans are familiar figures in historical scholarship. But what about the civilians whose disabilities predated the wars? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live as a disabled child in Europe during World War II? If so, this movie will give you a deep, almost visceral understanding of that experience. (If you've never thought about it, the movie may make you wonder why not.) One survivor shares his memories of the Nazis' bombing of London and, later, of being sent to an institution while other city children were sent to live out the war on farms throughout England.

Hevey never shies away from the marginalization and oppression which have characterized disabled people's experience. He confronts us, for example, with the mundane horror of medical professionals' brutal, misguided efforts to "fix" children with disabilities. He shows lives devastated by long-term institutionalization. His subjects recount their struggles with job discrimination, social isolation, and loneliness.

Yet the film never slips into the trap of equating disability with tragedy and victimization. The people in this film tell their own stories honestly, sometimes angrily, but without self-pity. We see disabled people resisting the limited roles to which society would confine them. The individuals in the movie share not only the blows they have endured, but also their victories. I particularly enjoyed hearing the story of a woman with a mobility impairment, who found her way into factory work during World War II, when able-bodied men were away at the front, leaving jobs open to women and to people with disabilities. Here was a crip version of "Rosie the Riveter"!

The film also manages to capture some "crip humor." There are jokes about the awkwardness of prosthetics and adaptive equipment. People share their clever retorts to hostile or ignorant passersby. A blind man, who has worked for years in England's library for the blind, relates some very funny anecdotes about misguided efforts to censor Braille literature.

In this sweeping survey of 20th-century England, Hevey certainly covers a lot of ground. Nevertheless, I came away from it feeling that, for all that I had learned, there was so much more to know. Perhaps the most important message of The Disabled Century is that when historical research includes an exploration of the experiences of people with disabilities, history itself grows deeper, richer, and more authentic.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of both quality and truthfulness, is The Good Doctor. A short, 30-minute dramatic film, The Good Doctor stars James Coburn as Dr. Roberts, a physician who specializes in assisted suicides. Roberts' resemblance to Jack Kevorkian cannot be coincidental: He has the same gaunt, gray-haired look (though Coburn certainly comes across as more handsome and more charismatic). He has the same zeal, actively seeking publicity in order to promote his cause, the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. He even has the same hobby: painting gruesome subjects involving death and dismemberment. Yet the film does not bother even to present a complex character study. Rather, this Kevorkian clone is idealized, presented as a noble and flawless crusader for a just cause. The practice of assisted suicide is not dealt with in any probing or realistic manner. It is romanticized instead, made into a beautiful, ethically uncomplicated service.

The "patient" in the film is a middle-aged woman with some unidentified terminal illness. She's portrayed as ethereal, lovely, graceful, contented. She has a comfortable home and a loving, supportive daughter (Iona Skye). Dr. Roberts moves in, waiting patiently for the woman to decide when to take the lethal concoction he has prepared for her. While he waits, he showers mother and daughter in wisdom and compassion.

The movie completely misrepresents Kevorkian and the practice of assisted suicide. Unlike the able-bodied, contented, apparently affluent cancer patient in the film, most of Kevorkian's "subjects" have been women with non-terminal disabilities who were driven to seek him out either because they lacked crucial resources such as in-home support services, effective pain management, accessible transportation, etc.; or because they had been abandoned and/or abused by their husbands; or because they accepted an able-ist society's notion that death is preferable to disability.

I hope The Good Doctor fades into obscurity. But if it does start turning up at film festivals and independent movie houses around the country, I trust that Not Dead Yet activists will be there too. We need to show up wherever this movie screens, to set the record straight.

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