Monday, August 01, 2016

Being There

I noticed him immediately. First, as always, the shock of recognition, of kinship. Second, the recognition that he's only there because this is real life. OK, let me explain. We went to see "The Music of Strangers: Yo Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble" with Ruby and Sadie. We had explained carefully that this was a documentary, not a regular style movie. We watched the trailer together. Both girls agreed to give it a try. Informed decision making is a part of how we negotiate our time together.

We landed in our seats in a completely empty theatre, we were all a little disappointed that another couple came just at the time it was starting. We'd looked forward to being alone and talking about the movie as it happened like we do with some television shows, now we had to be hushed and quiet. Oh well.

Very near the beginning, the camera was panning around a square in some country some where, Sadie leaned over and whispered to me, "This is real, right?" I told her it was. Then. I saw that it was. It was real. Because there, in the middle of the square, selling some kind of drink on a small table, was a guy with a disability. He was there for the briefest of seconds, but he was there.

He was there because people with disabilities are there. Are out in the world. Are doing business. Are crossing intersections. Are walking along chatting with friends. Are on the corner asking for change. Are in business suits grabbing lunch. I get all these examples from an experiment I tried after the movie was over. I counted people with disabilities on a two block stretch near Yonge and Dundas, which has been called Canada's busiest intersection. We're there.

Now, back to the movie theatre, back to the movie. As I said, I had this shock of recognition, this memory that we existed, this sense of kinship ... followed by Sadie's question. "This is real, right?" Yes. it's real. She was refering to the whole scene. I'm refering to him being there.

Do you know how long it's been since I've seen a person with a disability in a crowd scene, just being there in a movie movie, not a documentary like this one? I can't remember the last time. I've seen several movies lately, all of whom had crowd scenes and street scapes, some of them had lots of both of them. But not a person with a disability to be seen.

There's lots of talk about diversity in film and an important study is often mentioned. But you will notice that that study, as important as it may be, doesn't look at disability at all. A study on diversity in film is as exclusionary as the industry it intends to expose. How could disability NOT be part of a study about Hollywood representation? How? Well, the erasure of people with disability from any kind of narrative about diversity isn't uncommon. Diversity and Disability seem to be considered two different things. Diversity is presented as a strength and as if there is an imperative to broaden the narrative. Disability is presented, most often as needing the gift of inclusion. I don't want a gift, I want the recognition that we have voices, stories and perspectives that enrich and that the telling of those stories is part of our birthright. Disability doesn't exist so non-disabled writers can slaughter us for tears or sacrifice us to a larger plotline. We can be the plot. We can be the person in the crowd. We just need to be there.

It took a documentary shot of an 'it's real right?' scene of a busy square to finally see a person with a disability exactly where he should be, just there. I want more of that. We are there. We should be there.

We. Should. Be. There.


CapriUni said...


I haven't owned a television in four of five years, but back when I did, that was the quickest way I could tell, while channel surfing -- spending no more than a few seconds on each image before me -- whether or not what I was watching was fiction (or a restaging of an historical event) news footage.

On the news, there's always a disabled person in a city scene.

In fiction, there never is.

One time -- just one -- I thought I found an exception, when a wheelchair user appeared in the background of a police procedural.

...But it turned out he was there as a very important clue-giver at the end of the 20 minutes later.


Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt said...

I don't know whether my novel, Pride's Children, which has a disabled character as one of the three main characters, is not getting much push from the people who read it and said they loved it because of that, but I sometimes wonder.

The interesting thing to me has been that I can't seem to persuade disability bloggers to embrace the concept that fiction is not diverse if it uses people who are ill or disabled only for inspiration porn, or, as you've pointed out before, to die for the convenience of the able-bodied.

I don't know how much to push the concept: the point of the story is not the disability, but that a character who happens to have a major disability has the same wants and needs as everyone else. EVERYONE else. We have not become 'everyone else' until me writing a disabled character is not special, but just one of the things writers do.

Yes, disability complicates things. I suspect moviemakers would tell you they don't have space for that in a movie, because they're so short and a lot of story has to be packed in. And then there's the whole convoluted reasoning about having a gay or disabled character portrayed by an actor who is neither.

Then there is the whole sidekick thing: the few disabled characters there are (Hunchback of Notre Dame, anyone?) don't get to be the main character. They may have a role, but not the big one. And they don't 'get the girl.'

I was so glad Breaking Bad had the main character's son deal with having mobility and speech problems without comment. I'm afraid to check on the actor.

I took it the final step - and I hope other authors will.

I'm also aware that, done badly, it could be worse than other writing done badly, and I took great pains to learn to write.

But it is discouraging to make no splash.

We need disabled characters everywhere, because there are disabled people everywhere. Some of them are even written by disabled people. Who are, really, the same as everyone else.

Frank_V said...

We are everywhere, but rarely seen in front of the fantasy lens. The disabled are played mostly by able-bodied actors. The usual excuse is "Oh, we wanted to cast someone with star-power, you know, to attract box-office bucks!" does not hold water, because, really, how many movies were made like that in the first place?

Even for a full on action hero movies: Ben Affleck really improved the movie Daredevil? Like there was not a single blind male actor who knows martial arts that could not have done a better job in that role of blind hero by night, blind lawyer by day? Like back in the day, when it was common for Caucasian actors to play various immigrants, and native people, disabled actors deserve better.

Like there has never been a movie with an little known actor that went on to be a blockbuster? C'mon movie and TV producers, cast qualified disabled actors, you might just be surprised!

Moz said...

I came across this and remembered that you'd just posted the above. It seems strangely topical :)

From the article:

Cross-mobility casting

Belvoir St Theatre’s 2016 production of Twelfth Night, directed by Eamon Flack, seems to want to play on this essential jest in the fool’s persona – his slippery unnerving of what is natural, his ambivalent marking of the pleasure in disguise.

Twelfth Night charts a series of impassioned fixations fuelled by mistaken identity. Count Orsino loves the veiled and cloistered Olivia; she loves the servant Cesario who is really the shipwrecked Viola tendering Orsino’s love to her, and of course Viola loves Orsino, blindly, it seems.
Keith Robinson plays Feste in Twelfth Night. Brett Boardman/Belvoir St Theatre

Billed as an example of cross-mobility casting, the veteran actor Keith Robinson brings an additional lense to the ploy of mistaken identity in the work. His arrival as Feste has been prefaced by a ten year recovery from a severely disabling variant of Guillain-Barre Syndrome. His wheelchair choreographics are almost as masterful as his rhythmic and wryly commentative persona. His years of clowning are present in the timbre of his voice alone.