PLEASE WATCH THIS DISAPPOINTING DOCUMENTARY ON DISABILITY RIGHTS
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.)