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Haddayr Copley-Woods [userpic]

PLEASE WATCH THIS DISAPPOINTING DOCUMENTARY ON DISABILITY RIGHTS

October 27th, 2011 (02:06 pm)

LIVES WORTH LIVING Airs TONIGHT nationally at 10:00 PM on the PBS series Independent Lens
Locally (Twin Cities), Sunday Dec. 10th at 10:30 PM

I feel like I'm talking out of school -- that I should never speak against something that brings attention to disability rights issues. And I feel bad for the filmmaker Eric Neudel, who has solid editing and producing credits but as a director is somewhat inexperienced. And he was clearly so well-intentioned.

But I knew there was something amiss before I even cracked the case. The press release claimed Lives Worth Living as the 'first' documentary telling the story of the Disability Rights Movement. It isn't the first. Billy Golfus' absolutely wonderful When Billy Broke His Head is. And it's done by a disabled filmmaker.

Maybe this sounds like whiny nitpicking, but here's the thing: ignoring a seminal documentary created by a disabled person betrays an ignorance of the topic and a lack of respect for our accomplishments that I'm afraid pervades the entire film.

The documentary goes sort of like this: brief but eye-opening (if you are the intended audience, that is, which is fairly ignorant able-bodied people) montage explaining how our system treated disabled people before the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. (Hint: the answer is 'very very badly.' If you have mental health issues or have a child with any special needs -- especially autism or Downs -- be ready to be especially horrified.) Fairly coherent explanation of the federal building takeover in San Francisco that led to enforcement of the Rehabilitation Act. Vague jumble of speeches, interviews, and images of undefined struggle for decades. Signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)! Yaaaay! We won the end.

Missing from all of this: a coherent and clear idea of the timeline of events. Key legislation, court decisions, and scholarship. Some truly kick-ass songs. And most importantly, it is missing any mention of the specific pressing legislative, legal, and social issues that we are still fighting for today such as the Community Choice Act.

There are things to like about this documentary. He interviewed some funny, articulate, interesting people such as Fred Fay, Judy Heumann, (who was particularly wonderful), Judi Chamberlin, and Bob Kafka. It's empowering to see some of the archival footage.

But he chose to have no narrator and no text informing us of historical details to fit anything together or provide context. Most of the protest images don't even have identifying placards. He never identifies our leaders beyond their names and their organizations (complete with unexplained acronyms).

This pervasive vagueness creates the impression that disabled people just kind of showed up for a bunch of protests, maybe. A lack of specifics removes our agency as dedicated, impassioned, and SMART agitators for change. It leaves the impression that we were a disorganized group of people with vague needs and demands, and it was up to the able-bodied legislators at the end to put it all together for us.

For instance, he spent many precious minutes lovingly documenting the macho behind-the-scenes showdowns between able-bodied legislators and staff people as well as their long, self-congratulatory speeches. Our heroes, sweeping in to save the day.

The fact that the filmmaker chose to end this movie in this way -- complete with Ted Kennedy thanking not disabled people for hurling their bodies up the capitol steps, in front of busses, and into jail, but thanking their FAMILIES at the passage of the ADA -- is extremely problematic.

But. Please watch this when it hits your local PBS affiliate! Watch it to honor the people he interviewed, who gave terrific interviews. And watch it to add to the numbers. I want the people in charge of commissioning documentaries to understand that there is an audience for disability issues. Please watch it, and let your station know you watched it, and that you want more.

It's not enough. It's not nearly enough. You just can't capture decades of civil rights struggles in only 54 rather vague minutes. What we really need is a series. The crippled "Eyes on the Prize." Still, it's what we have right now.

Also check out the PBS site, they have an exhaustive interactive timeline that is really great. And then read On Our Own, Handicapping America, and Nothing About Us Without Us. While you are taking orders from me, run over to FB to abuse Billy Golfus for not getting off his duff and making When Billy Broke His Head available again. Go to YouTube and watch the (sadly, similarly jumbled) videos called It's Our Story with exhaustive footage of interviews with key disability rights figures.

And then could some filmmaker please please please take the time, effort, and heart to truly do this topic justice?


(Mad props to janradder, who helped me turn a jumbled incoherent cranky rant into an actual review.)

Comments

Posted by: That Chick with the Evil Laugh (sparkymonster)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 07:16 pm (UTC)

On the upside, I just requested the DVD of "When Billy broke his head" from my library.

Posted by: Haddayr Copley-Woods (haddayr)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 07:18 pm (UTC)

Ooooh! They have a copy? That's awesome.

It's a personal essay and ALSO does not lay out the timeline of the movement (and doesn't claim to), but it is sooooooooooo good.

Posted by: That Chick with the Evil Laugh (sparkymonster)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 07:23 pm (UTC)

I was surprised they had a copy too. I was resigned to having to try inter library loan. It sounds really awesome

Posted by: Haddayr Copley-Woods (haddayr)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 07:30 pm (UTC)

Back before I became physically disabled and was teaching comp, I used this movie to show kids who to tell a personal story while connecting yourself to the world and, if applicable, a movement. How you can use personal stories to truly inform in ways you can't with other methods.

I should also say that everyone should watch the documentary Lives Worth Living so they can see member of the Mental Patients Liberation Front holding her sign that says DAMN RIGHT WE'RE PARANOID.

Posted by: Ayesha (browngirl)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 07:27 pm (UTC)
Seshat (found online)

Maybe this sounds like whiny nitpicking, but here's the thing: ignoring a seminal documentary created by a disabled person betrays an ignorance of the topic and a lack of respect for our accomplishments that I'm afraid pervades the entire film.

That's not nitpicking, it's an important, illustrative clue.

Posted by: Haddayr Copley-Woods (haddayr)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 07:51 pm (UTC)

(I agree completely, and thank you.)

Posted by: Ann Keefer (Ann Keefer)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 07:52 pm (UTC)

I agree with Ayesha: It is a disappointment that this particular filmmaker with a disability has so little control over the narrative of the documentary, since ultimately it is (for me) the structure, the line, which holds all of the images together and allows us to come to certain understandings. While I support filmmakers with disabilities in their chance to share their stories and, in a sense, "our" stories, it is still disappointing that this film does not ultimately deliver on its promise. I do not know enough -- no, I know nothing --about film making to say that this could have been a better film with a different director, but ultimately I value a well-drawn narrative of respect for our experiences and expertise on a topic more than I demand a specifically embodied knowledge (which appears to be lacking here) from a disabled film maker.

Posted by: Haddayr Copley-Woods (haddayr)
Posted at: October 28th, 2011 03:41 am (UTC)

I do not believe this filmmaker has a disability, and I think that's part of the problem.

Posted by: Nathan (mastadge)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 07:32 pm (UTC)

Who wrote On Our Own?

Posted by: Haddayr Copley-Woods (haddayr)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 07:38 pm (UTC)

So sorry; I need to go back and put in some links. I wrote this in a hurry since it airs tonight. Judi Chamberlin, who was great in the documentary. Started the Mental Patient Liberation Front.

http://www.amazon.com/Our-Own-Patient-Controlled-Alternatives-Mental/dp/0070104514/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1319744123&sr=1-1

Posted by: Nathan (mastadge)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 07:39 pm (UTC)

Thanks. My library catalog turned up the others you mentioned, but On Our Own greeted me with thousands of results.

Posted by: badgerbag (badgerbag)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 07:39 pm (UTC)

It does sound a bit like one would learn more about the history of this from reading a few back issues of MOUTH. I'll still try to watch it though!

Posted by: Haddayr Copley-Woods (haddayr)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 07:40 pm (UTC)

I might edit this to also say: watch it to honor the people he interviewed, who all did a great job.

Posted by: Jackie Wones (little_octagon)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 08:38 pm (UTC)
OMG Laptop

Watch it to honor the people he interviewed, who gave terrific interviews. And watch it to add to the numbers.

Yeah, I kind of have an ish with the "able-bodied savior" mentality - problematic, indeed - but I will still check it out because it sounds like there are other imperatives for watching.

will also do those other things you suggested. thanks for the productive and informed post.

Posted by: Haddayr Copley-Woods (haddayr)
Posted at: October 28th, 2011 03:42 am (UTC)

Thank you! I certainly found people in the documentary to google. There was a time that would have sounded dirty.

Posted by: I'm nobody! Who are you? (capriuni)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 08:38 pm (UTC)

That sounds a bit like this "Disability History Timeline" I found online the other night:

http://hss.state.ak.us/gcdse/history/HTML_Content_Main.htm

-- lots of pictures, and listing of horrific "facts" about the abuses disabled people have suffered, through the years. But absolutely no sources (or credits) given, and no links to anywhere else to look for more information. It was put together by someone in the Alaska State department for Health and Social Services, last year (ADA's 20th anniversary).

It's like someone said: "Oh S#-, we've got to do something to mark this occasion!"

And really, it reads like a tenth (or ninth) grader's homework assignment... At first, I was sure that the 'hss' in the url would lead me back to some local high school, somewhere in the Midwest (Minnesota shows up a lot closer to modern times).

Posted by: diseased_inside (diseased_inside)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 10:16 pm (UTC)

I think I will put this on my list to watch at some later date. I'm way too tired and ragey to watch it anytime soon.

This bit:
For instance, he spent many precious minutes lovingly documenting the macho behind-the-scenes showdowns between able-bodied legislators and staff people as well as their long, self-congratulatory speeches. Our heroes, sweeping in to save the day.

Would probably make me kick my screen. Or start yelling at it and nobody wants to see that.

On the other hand I put When Billy Broke his Head on my list of things to watch.

And hi Haddayr :*

Posted by: Haddayr Copley-Woods (haddayr)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 10:21 pm (UTC)

Hello, love!

Posted by: The Absurd Hero and friends (jenlight)
Posted at: October 27th, 2011 11:04 pm (UTC)

But I don't wanna on account of I live a disappointing documentary on disability rights.
Can I watch something where people fly and aliens attack instead?

Posted by: Haddayr Copley-Woods (haddayr)
Posted at: October 28th, 2011 12:18 am (UTC)

FTW

Posted by: The Absurd Hero and friends (jenlight)
Posted at: October 28th, 2011 07:46 am (UTC)
streets ahead

<3

Posted by: geniusofevil (geniusofevil)
Posted at: October 28th, 2011 05:18 pm (UTC)

But he chose to have no narrator and no text informing us of historical details to fit anything together or provide context.

These days, when most of us look our shit up on the nets to learn more or verify, that is inexcusable. Not only does it breed confusion, but it implies a crap job of citing sources and researching well.

Netflix doesn't have Billy, and the used prices on Amazon! Whoa. I'll keep looking for it, though, sounds interesting.

Posted by: Haddayr Copley-Woods (haddayr)
Posted at: October 28th, 2011 05:20 pm (UTC)

I was actually serious about bugging him on FB to fucking get a distributor. He had a problem with his last one and pulled the movie, so you can't find it anywhere.

Someone here found it at her library, though. You might want to see if they have a copy?

Posted by: geniusofevil (geniusofevil)
Posted at: October 28th, 2011 05:24 pm (UTC)

Okay, I never thought of checking at the library. Some of us still think they only traffic in books I guess! Will do!

Posted by: Thida (waterowl)
Posted at: October 29th, 2011 07:27 pm (UTC)

Interesting. I've just ordered When Billy Broke his Head from the library.

I for one wasn't part of an organized disability rights movement before the ADA was passed, though I was a group activist for other causes. I did campaign my liberal arts college publicly for things that would now just have been given to me as part of the ADA. Pre ADA it was nobless obige and the college didn't obige, because what I needed didn't fit into their notion of what disabled meant. And to be honest, at times, I had trouble accepting the label 'disabled.'

From my perspective, I credit autism spectrum activists with expanding the definition of disabled in the USA. At the same time, my current major frustration is with my local SEPTA (Special Education PTA) to get them to use more inclusive language rather than spectrum specific language e.g. use the word playgroup for SNK rather than social skills group.

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