In the 1980s a disabled terror group Reasonable Adjustment carried out a campaign of violence to gain rights - or did they?
Our Longmore Student Fellow Nathan Burns interviewed Justin Edgar, director of Reasonable Adjustment, which will screen at #Superfest35, October 15-17. Read on and make sure to reserve your pass to Superfest now.
Nathan: What inspired you to create Reasonable Adjustment?
Justin: First and foremost, the thing to make sure all potential programmers know is that the film is not real. It is entirely a constructed fiction made with actors, digital effects, different film stocks and sound techniques of the period and some deepfake footage of real people. There is a lot of invisible effects work in this film.
As a filmmaker, I find mock documentary films don’t really convince so I set the challenge of convincing myself. I had to go to great lengths to do that. It wasn’t easy to do and everything in the film had to be recreated. I made microfiche newspaper articles, burned the chair for real and hired a professional reportage photographer to shoot 35mm ektachrome stills, these photographs were then shot on a 16mm rostrum camera exactly as would have been done back then – you can’t just do that anywhere. We had to source period props, costumes and digitally remove anything that didn’t belong in frame. There is a lot of invisible CGI in the film. We also went to a home office registered firing range in Yorkshire to recreate the attack on the BBC using live ammunition. To get the right locations we had to shoot in the Midlands, Birmingham and various locations in London including a guerrilla shoot in Westminster. We also had to find a voice double for Margaret Thatcher.
We shot on 16mm film with an Arriflex camera that would have been used at the time. We used vintage lenses and old-fashioned tungsten lighting. We made the sound mix mono and used special sound filters to ensure it sounded of the period. I auditioned many actors to get someone with the right inflection of a presenter from the 1990s. This authenticity also extended to the accessibility features of the film and it has old-style Ceefax subtitles.
Part of making it work was the tone – I decided it should have a slightly left-wing journalistic bias which would help to ensure that it felt real. Many British TV programmes of the time had that stance and World in Action is how filmmakers like Paul Greengrass started out. If you look back at old docos from that period they are very mannered and slow as well and we tried to emulate that style.
I realised that pre-2000AD we were BG (before google) and truth BG is hazy, you can make stuff up. For instance, in 1997 I was involved in quite a big news story, it made national press at the time but it’s nowhere to be found online. For all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist. Before Google is the dark ages in terms of what really happened. Another example is the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) who were very active, and are kind of the model for RAD. They sent letter bombs, killed and even branded people with branding irons, but you never hear anything about them now.
I have a theory about protest groups – they assimilate the tropes of other, past protest groups, so are quite easy to recreate and emulate. Putin has done this to great effect in Russia to steer and influence public opinion.
I believe we are living in a post-truth era, whether we like it or not. I also believe that truth is relative and a subjective concept, we all live in our own realities and cinema reflects that. Susan Sontag spoke of humankind revelling in “mere images of the truth”.
Nathan: For our mostly US-based audience, can you share a bit more about the cultural context of disability in relation to radicalism in the UK? Relatedly, was there any significance to the fact that you borrowed footage from the IRA?
Justin: I think outside the UK we have an image as a polite little island, but its actually always been a hotbed of anti-establishment movements. The French called it a revolution but we call ours a civil war! From the Tolpuddle martyrs to Punk to Brexit, there is a long history of dissent, its in the DNA of the British. I grew up in the Thatcher 80s, a very febrile era of mistrust where peace activits and trade unionists were under mass surveillance by the state and the spectre of IRA violence hung over everything – there were metal detectors in my local library and bombings were common. I think a lot of that went into Reasonable Adjustment.
According to the British Medical Journal there have been 130,000 preventable deaths attributable to the austerity policies of the Liberal Democrat and Conservative government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg since 2010.
Errol Graham, 57, weighed 28.5kg when he starved to death after complications owing to the nature of his disability led to his benefits being cut. He died having pulled out his own teeth with a pair of pliers as he didn’t have the appropriate care.
These are holocaust-like numbers more associated with war than social policy and people need a mirror held up to the society we are living in. A society where disabled and disadvantaged people have been disregarded and vilified by a government which we voted in. This is life and death, it’s a big subject and the work needs to be impactful”.
That is why I compare the struggle for disability rights to other armed resistance groups with RAD. I wanted to compare the two and draw parallels.
Nathan: What’s the biggest take-away you hope audiences will get from your film?
Justin: If we start with the notion that truth is tyranny, we can understand the film better. I appreciate not everyone will agree with that assertion, but there’s no point in making a film if it doesn’t cause debate. Whenever you point a camera at something you are making a judgement about how you see that thing, staking your own sense of truth upon it.
Who is the arbiter of what’s real and what isn’t? Yourself? Can you trust yourself?
My reality may not be your reality.
Another important point is that this is satire and people have to remember that, it’s meant to make a point through humour. When I put a teaser clip of the film on Facebook it was viewed 80,000 times in 24 hours and was banned by facebook for hate speech. I always felt it was interesting for people to find their own truth about what they are watching, good or bad. After an appeal it was reinstated as it makes a comment on hate speech rather than extolling it.
The key question that I hope viewers will ask is why make it up? Why bother? And that question prompts you to delve a bit deeper. I encourage programmers to let audiences make up their own mind about the film. I always knew there was a risk that people would get offended if they felt stupid, that they’d been duped. But then I thought in that realisation there will be an insight where people think about the issues at hand…
Nathan: At Superfest, we often talk about disability being a creative and generative force in filmmaking. Rather than the "in spite of your disability" stories, many of our filmmakers find that their disability impacted their filmmaking and led to the unique voice or aesthetic their film brings. Does that resonate with you at all? If so, how?
Justin: Absolutely, I believe that mainstream culture survives and thrives on the fringes and that is what we bring to the table as disabled filmmakers – a unique voice and world view. I think there is an increasing argument for a school of disability filmmaking and I’m currently writing a book on that subject.
Nathan: How do you think your film challenges and/or improves traditional filmmaking/storytelling about disability?
Justin: It seems to me the traditional depictions of disabled people in narrative film is either as a villain or a victim. With Reasonable Adjustment I wanted to depict disabled people acting in a way which was questionable and challenged the traditional moral values of the audiences. The film actually began life as part of an exhibition for the Richard Attenborough Gallery in the UK and what was interesting as I eavesdropped on conversations of the gallery visitors was how people thought the group were justified in their actions!
Nathan: What surprised you while making this film?
Justin: I was surprised at how the film was received. It premiered as part of an arts festival at the Southbank Centre which is a major art space in London. It had 60,000 views in one weekend and was actually banned by facebook because some people objected to the language used on grounds of hate speech. We were able to get it put back up though. It was also banned by another festival in the UK because it was seen as controversial. I think people are used to different kinds of depictions of disabled people and it is hard for them to process depictions that are not the norm. It's interesting that the people who objected to it are by and large non-disabled.
Nathan: What about your film are you most proud of?
Justin: I am proud we got banned from facebook! I’m also proud that it works – that people think its real. There was a lot of sleight of hand involved and I’m glad that the efforts we went to paid off.
Nathan: You handled the audio description of Reasonable Adjustment yourself to make it match the tone of the film. Please share anything you’d want your audience to know about your approach and process.
Justin: For audio description we invented our own automated version purportedly devised by Texas Instruments called TalkTextTM, the audio description track for the film gives its own narrative, designed to reflect ableist attitudes and language of that time. I think audiences should listen to it, as it tells us a lot about how far terminology has come in the last 30 years.
Nathan: Film festivals like Superfest showcase those stories that Hollywood often leaves behind. What do you want to see happen next for disability in film, on both a large and small scale?
Justin: The key is getting more disabled filmmakers behind the camera, for example everyone talks about CODA* but why wasn’t the director/writer/producer Deaf? The filmmaking community needs to stop taking it for granted that disabled stories can be authentically told by non disabled filmmakers and it's our job to constantly challenge that notion.'
(*Editor's note: This refers to a different CODA than the film screening at Superfest 2021.)
Nathan: What are you currently working on?
Justin: I’m producing four disability shorts for Film Four here in London. It's really exciting they are backing disabled film talent and the films are all on the theme of Love and will premiere on Valentines Day!