Workshop: Illness and Disability in Fiction Films
Friday, 16. November, 14.00 - 16.30
Saturday, 17. November, 11.00 - 13.00
Place: Filmmuseum, St. Jakobs-Platz 1, Munich
Why is a character in a feature film ill or disabled? There are always at least two reasons - and one of them has got nothing to do with medicine.
In the Hollywood film, "While You Were Sleeping", Peter is in a coma for three days because he fell headfirst onto the tracks of the New York subway. But Peter is also in a coma so that a stranger, a girl, can be taken into his family's home and fall in love with his brother. The plot calls for a character who is present but cannot intervene - for example, someone lying in a coma.
We can examine the significance and function of disability and illness in fiction films on several different levels. At the most superficial level, that of the story, one can ask: "Who falls ill how and why, who has which disability and why?" Films, above all, employ the "images" of disability and illness already rooted in a society or culture - as well as the attitudes, value judgements and prejudices toward those who are ill or disabled. And the particular film, in turn, affects those attitudes by either reinforcing or questioning them.
On the level of dramatic methodology and film structure, illness and disability take on new meaning. What traits should a character have, how should he or she act so that the author can tell the story the way he or she would like to? A protagonist who is supposed to re-examine his or her life in retrospect might get cancer and be confronted with impending death. In an entertainment film, a female lover's fainting spell can serve the purpose of putting the straightforward, vigorous male lead to the test. At first glance, an epileptic fit may seem to serve the same purpose. For a simple love story, however, it raises too many additional questions. Fits are useful, though, as breaks and plot points.
In terms of the functionality of roles and narrative technique, illness and disability have great significance. As a visual medium film operates with a language of signifiers which themselves have an established tradition. Certain characteristics signal specific character traits or biographical qualities. In the classical Western, the bad guy always wears a black hat, someone limping is a loser, the hunchback is devious, the amputee bitter (and often bent on revenge). This, of course, raises several questions. Which figures do screenwriters prefer to use as projections of our fears, aggression and longing for miracles, and why? What choices can be attributed to the dramatic laws of the genre - the psychopathic killer, the particularly helpless (blind, for example) victim, the bed-ridden and therefore grateful recipient of help? And at whose expense are these choices made?
It is well-documented that, in its treatment of illness and disability, the cinema not only draws upon traditional notions and false clichés, but also reinforces them. We know what a disastrous influence the familiar, often genre-typical film characters can have - the sinister cripple, the disfigured avenger, the manic killer, and their mentally or physically impaired victims. Precise descriptions and analyses of the underlying operating mechanisms, however, are rare - particularly within the German literature.
If we wish to change the image of chronically ill and disabled persons, which determines the behaviour of the general public toward them, we will have to deal with the image which the media project of them. That this is not a marginal issue becomes clear when one sees to what extent, just in terms of sheer quantity, illness and disability appears in fiction film production.
This year's Workshop will deal with the visability and significance of "illness and disability" in international fiction films. Discussion will focus on an evaluation of criteria and categories for an analysis and interpretation of films in which illness and disability play a role. We will take stock of the scientific and media studies on this topic that are already published (particularly in Germany) or are in progress. And we will examine the possibilities and limitations of utilising films as part of the public relations programs of organisations and self-help groups.
Part One of the Workshop will be on Friday, 16 November, from 2 to 4:30 p.m. To start off, we will have three talks:
Following these talks, the invited guests will share their personal and working experiences, with audience discussion.
Paul A. Darke, Wolverhampton: Disability in Fiction Film. A historical survey and aspects of a typology.
Hans-Jürgen Wulff, Kiel: Illness as a dramatic theme.
Michael Verhoeven and Peter Radtke, Munich: Playing with disability. A dialogue.
Part Two of the Workshop will be on Saturday, 17 November, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. It will be devoted mainly to the practical aspects of future collaboration.
To facilitate preparation of the Workshop and for ongoing communication, we will be hosting an Internet Forum from the end of October. Look for it at our website: www.abm-medien.de.
The Workshop will take place in the Screening Room of "Film Museum". Workshop admission is free. We ask that you register early if you wish to participate.
"Wie wir leben"
Karl Heinz Gruber
Bonner Platz 1/V, D-80803 München
Tel. (089) 307 992-20
Fax. (089) 307 992-22