Disability in the U.S. Media – notes on 2006
By Barbara Duncan
This year was not an exceptional one for disability on American film:
nothing as good as Station Agent, or Ray, but then again, nothing as bleak and depressing as Million Dollar Baby. Maybe the most revealing concerning societal attitudes towards disability was the dinner scene in Borat, where Sacha Baron Cohen is putting on his country-boob-just-arrived-from-Kazakhstan act for a group of wealthy Southerners. As he is introduced around the table, one gentleman is described as “retired,” which Cohen/Borat pretends to mishear as “retarded.” The discomfort among the group is palpable, as they strain to correct this impression without really saying much of anything. In this sort-of documentary film, Borat’s whole shtick is saying something derogatory about ethnic or religious or other groups (feminists, women) in front of Americans, in the hope that they will agree with him on camera and add something more egregious of their own. Having been assured that the filming is just for broadcast in Kazakhstan, pretty much, they comply.
On network television, one of the standout dramas this year is Friday Night Lights, portraying a small town in Texas where the only shared experience is the ups and downs of the Friday night games of the high school football team. Produced and written primarily by Peter Berg, the NBC show stars Scott Porter as Jason Street, the quarterback who becomes quadriplegic from a game injury. The whole show is imbued with more than usual gritty realism about small town life, intramural jealousies, race relations and the cruelty of high school, but, still it is surprising to see the disability arc played with such attention to down and dirty detail.
In a TV Guide interview, Porter says that Berg is committed to “keeping everything as realistic as possible for the kids out there who are really going through this…” He points out that in Texas alone 10 high school students a year are paralyzed through sports. As examples of the realism, we see Street returning home in a wheelchair to find that his parents have rearranged the house so he can have a bedroom on the first floor, and we see his hesitance to put his weight on the makeshift ramp. Later, we come to understand how far Street’s character has come in grasping his new reality, when he is annoyed by his girlfriend’s expectations for his complete recovery. His girlfriend has been searching the web for recovery stories and found one about a basketball player who once was paralyzed. To the writers’ credit, although those hopes are dashed, they produce some great scenes of a wheelchair basketball game, in the style of last year’s hit, Murderball. Overall, the disability themed material is seamlessly interwoven with the other scenes.
U.S. based Film Festivals
Disability film festivals are proliferating around the U.S. and in 2006 we heard about the following: Reel Life in Michigan; Cinema Touching Disability in Texas; Bodies of Work and Screening Disability in Chicago; Sprout in New York City; University of Oregon in Eugene; and one in Beverly Hills, featuring films about inclusion of people with developmental disabilities.
This year’s Superfest in June featured a dozen excellent winners, selected from over 50 entries from Europe, North America and the Middle East. Some of the most memorable were: Wood Diary, a dreamlike interpretation of the life of a rural disabled artist, who worked in isolation on carved wooden figures; About Love, a Russian documentary featuring interviews with schoolchildren about their love lives; Nectar, a British drama of the life of a deaf Olympic-level swimmer; and One Strong Arm, documenting the life of an American teenager who works out until he is strong enough to compete in mainstream wrestling matches. Earning Superfest’s first award for emerging artists was The Third Parent, a documentary by a U.S. college student about how her desire to breakaway and become independent from her family, conflicts with her desire to stay close to her younger, autistic brother. The winners, together with contact information, are described on the website of Culture!Disability!Talent!, the sponsor of the annual Superfest: www.culturedisabilitytalent.org