Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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Short Stories: documentary film review

By Barbara Duncan (bjdnycla@aol.com)

This approximately 60 minute film by award-winning documentary producer Robert Byrd, is an intimate portrait of three U.S. families whose members include dwarves or people of short stature. It was shown on Public Broadcasting System stations during October as part of the PBS "Independent Lens" series. There are an estimated 100,000 to 250,000 short-statured people nationwide.

Overall, the film is an engaging but often unsettling look at what life is like for many of "the Little People of America," as the main self-help group is called. It gives some "slice of life" examples of the types of prejudice and isolation experienced in childhood, adolescence and as adults - and records their wide spectrum of reactions.

Here, interestingly, the reactions to the onslaught of discrimination are shown as significant indicators of future stability. Basically, in this film the more the disabled individual manages to distance from or rationalize the behavior of the public, the better life goes. Conversely, the (interviewed) individuals who become engulfed by anger or sadness about the ongoing inequities do not seem able to cope with adult relationships or responsibilities. We see the gamut here - from the dual-career couple who have successful, adult children and life under control, to the couples who break apart under the pressures of having children too much like or unlike themselves.

In some ways, the film is unrelentingly bleak, maybe because so few options were presented for the two couples that are in crisis. Many of the problems centered around parenting: both the problems of non-disabled parents who are unsure of how to handle raising children of short stature, and the disabled parents who were clearly not prepared for the physical demands and frequent medical needs of children who had inherited their condition. One anguished mother is devastated that her own diminished strength means she no longer can scoop up her toddler.

Perhaps because Parenting & Disability services are becoming better known in the U.S., I kept expecting, hoping that some assistance would be offered. But, this is not that type of film - rather, it is an intense stare into the daily lives of three families over the course of a year, bare of prescriptions or interventions.

Interspersed with the intimate family scenes are glimpses of a relentlessly upbeat national convention of the Little People of America. Here we get an exposure to the celebration of talents, sessions featuring reports of genetic engineering developments and social and dating opportunities that comprise these annual meetings. Several hundred participants are shown dancing, attending talent shows, meeting up with old friends and participating in sessions.

In high contrast, a disturbing thread that the director weaves with expertise is the sense of impending violence or cataclysm with one couple. After some edgy scenes with one husband who is finding it hard to channel his anger, it comes as no real surprise that his wife ends up in a women's shelter, presumably with her child, at the end of the film.

In both couples which are in crisis, the mother is engaged with schools and doctors trying to find solutions or help, while the fathers become gradually overwhelmed by the demands.

Overall, I found the film disquieting as it brought up many unanswered questions and unresolved issues. Knowing several people of short stature who are quite at ease with their lives, I had to wonder if the intense focus on the couples in crisis was not unduly negative. Therefore I think the film would be better used as a tool for discussion within the disability or an academic community than as a general introduction to the situation of dwarves for the primarily non-disabled public. The editors of disabilityworld would like to hear the opinions of others who saw this film.

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