Saturday, October 4, 2008

Realabilities: Every Time You Look at Me

Last weekend my partner and I indulged in the new Cohen brother’s Burn After Reading, which was above and beyond what the reviews had led me to suspect. However, it opened with a PSA for Down Syndrome Awareness Month featuring multiple people with Down syndrome and their friends and family. At first, I was excited to see in this packed multiplex a celebration of disability. However, I quickly realized that this was no celebration. The folks with Down syndrome did not speak once the entire PSA. Their friends and family members spoke for them. Now, I have to say that I don’t have any friends with Down syndrome now, but I did growing up. And in elementary school – before I succumbed to the ableist segregation that kept me apart from visible disabilities for years – my friends were able to clearly state basic desires such as “don’t make fun of me”. I don’t see a reason why the participants in the ad couldn’t advocate for themselves, or at least in conjunction with their families and friends. Which brings me to the movie Every Time You Look At Me. I saw this amazing (and sadly under-produced) gem at the Realabilities Film Festival two Tuesdays ago.

If I had to only watch five movies for the rest of my life, Every Time You Look At Me would be an easy add to the list. I’m unsure what the other four would be, but I know that the heterosexual paradigm of love-conquers-all would get old after a while, so I wanted to bring some realism to this review. That aside, I could watch this movie on repeat for quite a while. The film stars Mat Fraser and Lisa Hammond as lovers with extraordinarily oppositional views and upbringings. Lisa’s character, Nicky, is a little person who is vocally proud of her disability and extravagant about her identity to often crass ends - a necklace she wears in one scene reads “great tits”. Mat’s character, Chris, who describes himself in the movie as a “thalidomide-affected individual” has grown up in a family that refuses to see his disability (perhaps because of some guilt associated with it) and has blended himself into upper class aspirational culture as much as is possible.

One of the largest critiques disability advocates have of the movie industry is that able-bodied actors often portray actors with disabilities. This complaint is often answered with self-produced short films or low-budget movies that don’t sufficiently illuminate the fact that a disability doesn’t impede an ability to act. What was absolutely brilliant about Every Time is that Lisa Hammond and Mat Fraser can act the pants off most Hollywood stars. Which is crucial for delivering this film. In one of the rare instances where an analogy across identities works, what is said about women and folks of color is equally true for people with disabilities. You have to be twice as good in order to get as far as an able bodied person.

This film is also, despite its clear adherence to the romantic comedy plot-lines that always leave me in tears, very difficult in terms of its subject matter. Nicky and Chris don’t have an easy time of it, and despite several instances where the filmmakers could have concluded on a happy up-beat note that love smoothes every difficulty, they choose instead to make visible the difficulties that people with disabilities face. At several points the idea of Nicky and Chris being together seems impossible, especially in one poignant scene where Nicky is seen in a hotel bathroom surveying the shelves and appliances that are beyond her reach. The writers are clever, however, in their refusal to make Nicky and Chris poster children for disability awareness. While Nicky has a strong support group around her, and we often see her at what looks like a mother-daughter social events for little people, she does not legislate for access or rally in the streets to end stigmatization. This breaks the code that someone who belongs or claims a particular identity is either going to be an expert in it or have that identity consume their life. I generally despise the line of "we are just like you" and this movie manages to mostly avoid it, showing the ways Nicky and Chris are not like an able-bodied viewer, while making their lives as normal and boring as anyone's - disabled or able bodied.

Nicky also has a fabulous Black best friend who is given a good amount of screen time, and who even has a present family and Black friend base that we see in later scenes. This impressed me as well as most Black-best-friends come devoid of families or other friends of color in Hollywood films.

My favorite part of the movie was watching Lisa Hammond dance. Never before had I seen a person so excited to be in her own body, so comfortable with the fact that people might be staring, pointing, and laughing and not giving too much thought to it. Although we learn later on that Nicky has some extreme self-esteem and body issues that are only brought out when her tough exterior is cracked (have you seen that before?) I genuinely believe that her dancing is an act of liberation.

While the character of Nicky and I have little in common, we do both share a love of dancing that I’m sure we both had to develop. I remember trying to make moves that were more masculine, studying the butch women on the dance floor for cues on how to “move like a man”. I imagine the character of Nicky watching other women dancing thinking of moves that would defy stereotypes of little people. The discovery of quality clubs that allow for serious dancing was perhaps the best discovery of my twenties. I knew people were staring, pointing, and talking, but I also knew they did that to anyone brave enough to dance. As soon as I realized copying other's moves didn't make me happy, my dancing changed and helped me to feel more free. I imagine the character of Nicky stepping up to the challenge of dancing in public at an early age. She basically asks club-goers to notice and acknowledge her existence with her dancing, which she clearly also does because it makes her feel invisible to the stares that more than likely permeate her daily life.

Which is similar to what the movie is asking of its viewers, to acknowledge a presence...and then to let it be. Not to make folks with disabilities invisible, but neither to bring disability into the realm of metaphor and myth.


shiva said...

I heard of this film just after it was shown, but have never seen it - the BBC don't seem to like to release their one-off made-for-TV drama films on DVD...

Do you know if there's any way of getting hold of a copy?

BTW, i passed this on to you: Blog Love

Mik Danger said...

As far as I know there isn't any way! It was one of the most succesful films for the BBC...yet they never put it onto DVD!

However, I know Mat rally wants to tour it some more, so maybe thats a way to see it?

THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THE LOVE!!!!! I really appreciate it. As I'm sure you know, sometimes you just write away and wonder if anyone's listening. I appreciate your love so much - and I'm sending it back to you tenfold!

shiva said...

"As I'm sure you know, sometimes you just write away and wonder if anyone's listening."

Yeah. That's my single biggest reason for not blogging, to be honest.

It's also the reason that i deliberately chose those of the blogs i read and admire which don't seem to get many comments...

(note that i really have NO idea why some of those blogs get loads of comments and others none...)

shiva said...

And i'd really like to see your 7, BTW...

Anonymous said...

Today is my lucky day :)
Apple is giving review copies of iPad to 100 lucky person. Go to and apply for it.