Why the Dissies?

Three film strips cross to make a 6-pointed starBy: Catherine Kudlick

Earlier this year the Longmore Institute took over running Superfest International Disability Film Festival along with the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind. Occasionally we’ll blog about our behind-the-scenes thinking and plans, our debates, our challenges in taking over this venerable Bay Area disability cultural institution, the world’s longest-running disability film festival.

In the spirit of the celebrated Hollywood send-up, “The Razzies,” we will host our first event, “The Dissies,” on Saturday, October 12. Temporarily departing from the traditional film festival format, this one-night retrospective will gather together the formidable Bay Area disability community for an unflinching, entertaining look at the worst of the worst clips in US film representations of disability. With that renewed sense of pride that comes from bonding over reclaiming an uncomfortable past, we can return to the true work of Superfest next year to celebrate disability films that showcase our community’s ingenuity and creativity.

But for now, as we fundraise and begin to put our submission and judging processes in place, we wanted to try something unprecedented in the disability community:  take the sting out of the negativity disabled people face by unpacking it together among friends. After all, it’s one thing to attend mainstream screenings or watch them at home alone, and quite another to arrive knowing that we’re among fellow-travelers whose primary aim is to shatter these images and to have some fun.  Think of it like emotional judo, where a combatant temporarily works with the opponent’s force in order to triumph; you’ve got to understand that force in all its complexity to own it and make it work for you.

Besides, when we go to the movies, how often do we see disability up there on the big screen and get to laugh at outrageous portrayals and comment on them? As an imperfectly blind moviegoer myself, I am there, making conscious and subconscious comparisons with the actors and their situations: do they remind me of anyone I know and love? Do they suggest anything about me, the person I hope to be or the one I secretly dread?  And how do I feel about my fellow audience members as I watch these projections: have I dissolved into being an anonymous member of a crowd or am I hiding alone among the many?

All movie-going puts people in that unnamed space between being an individual viewer and part of a whole.  But when are we invited to experience this and act on it in a big room where others have shared many of the same emotions related to disability?  How often do we get to indulge in acts of collective indignation at tired-old stereotypes and clichés, cloying exaggerations, cheap shots at disabled people and disability by gasping, hooting, laughing, raising collective fist and finger (or whatever real or imagined body part) into the air to say “enough already!”

Whether films take us somewhere far away outside or deep down inside, they involve an intimate dance between projection and reflection, a giant flickering mirror, not just back to us, but to the society and culture we live in.  They shape how we see ourselves individually and collectively, how others see us, and how we see others.  This is why movies matter, why they occupy a key intersection where entertainment, psychology, and social justice meet.

And it’s why it matters when those of us with disabilities see someone with a disability up there on the screen.  For me as someone who grew up shaped by taunting and isolation, the pathetic portrayals of blind characters played by clueless sighted ones reinforced my worst fears of being an ugly, unloveable person who held things close to my face and who too often mis-reached or bumped into things and missed sighted cues, only to discover I had been the butt of a cruel joke. It didn’t help that I only came upon humiliating caricatures of someone like me, still too common, such as the recent one trotted out in the trailer for a fake Will Smith movie, Blind Ref?  And what about all the movies about other disabilities, slavishly remaining true to stereotypes that careen between menace and being pathetic? (I won’t suggest any here, since I don’t want to influence the nominations and voting!)  But for a compilation of twentieth-century movies made in the US and a schema for thinking about them, see Martin Norden’s Cinema Of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies (Rutgers, 1994).

So let us come together – people with disabilities, our friends, our allies, and anyone curious enough to wonder what the fuss is all about - to hijack this dreariness by having it on our terms rather than ones dictated to us by outdated scripts.  As individual viewers, most of us lack the power to dethrone the seemingly unassailable images, leaving us to feel empty and isolated, and even unsure if we’re right to challenge an industry that is so entrenched and well-financed.  Sitting in a large room together with popcorn, we discover that we have never been alone when we squirm - it’s just that we never knew there could be people who thought like us right there in the audience despite what we saw up on the screen.  Thanks to the Bay Area’s rowdy, savvy, audacious, smart audience of people with disabilities, we can begin to question a tired past from a place of power in a spirit of camaraderie and fun.

The process of owning the past involves actually looking at it from time to time, to see where we’ve been and celebrate the progress we’ve achieved as a movement.  Combined with growing numbers of more nuanced portrayals that Superfest will showcase in the future, events such as the Dissies can help a generation of current and future filmmakers and filmgoers change expectations. For this important evening together, everyone will be experts charged with exposing and denouncing the old stereotypes for what they are. By collectively unpacking the negatives that mainstream society has forced in front of us, people with disabilities and our allies can insist on images that reflect and project the more fascinating realities we know to be true. And basking in these new reflections, we can constructively move forward with better ideas of who we are to others and to ourselves.