Streaming Spotlight on disability in film

Disabled characters as we rarely see them

by Jennie Kermode

As we approach International Day of Persons with Disabilities (3 December), we’re turning our spotlight on the representation of disabled people in film. There have been two good examples of this released in the past fortnight, with both Ropes and Run featuring heroines who have to try and survive dangerous situations while also dealing with paralysis, but while horror is increasingly acquitting itself well with this kind of representation, other genres lag behind. There’s also an ongoing problem with the absence of disabled people in smaller roles and among extras, which adds to a sense of general invisibility, a failure to recognise the world as it really is.

Not all the actors playing disabled people in these films are themselves disabled, and we’d like to see filmmakers try a lot harder to provide opportunities for the many talented disabled performers out there, but crucially these are all films that tell great stories about great characters. They don’t patronise, they don’t ask for your pity, they don’t use disability as a metaphor and they’re miles away from the worthy but dull stereotype of the ‘issue’ film. They may well teach you something, but you’ll also enjoy them as great pieces of cinema.

Chained For Life
Chained For Life

Chained For Life - BFI Player, Amazon Prime

Following a fictional film crew as they shoot a doubly fictional horror movie about a crazed plastic surgeon, his beautiful blind daughter and a hospital full of disabled and disfigured people, Aaron Schimberg’s dark comedy explores cinemas attitudes to disability and its obsession with the idea of beauty and the beast style romance. The beauty of the film within a film is played by an actress (played by Jess Weixler) whose fascination with its beast (Adam Pearson), who is friendly but utterly uninterested in her, leads her to reveal layer upon layer of her own ugliness. Hired because they’re cheaper than ‘real actors’ and unable to use the same hotel because nobody thought about access, the disabled cast members are fully aware of the absurdities of the situation which results in a curious turning of the tables as the abled crew members struggle to keep up. Sharply observed, hilariously direct and just as cruel as it ought to be, the result conjures up images of Todd Browning’s Freaks reimagined as a polite after dinner conversation.

My Feral Heart
My Feral Heart

My Feral Heart - Amazon Prime, YouTube and Google Play

Amber Wilkinson writes: Jane Gull's My Feral Heart is a multifaceted and warm character study of caregiver Luke (Stephen Brandon), who has been looking after his mum and who finds his world shifts on its axis after she dies. Luke has Down's syndrome - but the film shows this is just one element of who he is, even if it is the reason why he finds himself uprooted from the life he has known and placed in a group home. Gull and scriptwriter Duncan Paveling are out to challenge preconceptions here - not just those of the viewer, who may well hold stereotypical view of those with Down's syndrome that is a long way from reality, but for their central character, who discovers that his prejudice against the home may also not be entirely justified. Luke's perspective is placed front and centre so we see events through his eyes, as he struggles with grief, forms a friendship with a man (Will Ralstall) carrying out community service at the home and comes across a feral young girl (Pixie Le Knot). Brandon, in his first role, captures perfectly the emotional tug-of-war between Luke's grief and his naturally easygoing personality, while Ralstall also brings his character's internal conflict to the fore. Read our interview with Jane Gull.

Kills On Wheels
Kills On Wheels

Kills On Wheels - Amazon Prime

One of the most irritating things one hears from medical and social care professionals as a disabled person is the insistence that with just a little help, one can do anything one wants to do. As the heroes of this film discover, that’s fine if one’s ambitions extend to making pots and weaving baskets, but help is harder to come by when one pushes beyond those limits – and if one wishes to be, say, a professional assassin, one is going to have to deal with all the inconveniences of steps and gates and careless urban landscaping without the assistance of the local council. The great thing is that many abled people are so squeamish about the sight of wheelchair users that they might as well be invisible when casually rolling away from a crime scene. Not everything is quite what it seems in Attila Til’s lively dark comedy, but there's plenty of irreverent humour and action scenes the likes of which you've never seen before.

TransFatty Lives
TransFatty Lives

TransFatty Lives - Amazon Prime

Amber Wilkinson writes: Patrick O'Brien - aka DJ TransFatty - was just 30 when he was diagnosed with the motor neuron disease Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) in 2005 and told he had a very low life expectancy (something, thankfully, the doctors were wrong about). He decided to document what happened next and what follows is an energetic, sometimes comic, frequently poignant consideration of the disease from the inside out. A lifelong creative talent, he has a knack for really bringing home aspects of sudden impact of the illness - which he describes as "enlightenment by shotgun" - with humour, such as in an animated sequence in which his limbs are shown in coffins as he talks about saying farewell To arms. O'Brien not only takes us on a highly personal and often emotional journey that gets down to basics about the disease, he also offers an insight into the struggle for medical facilities in the US. All in all this is a bracing, clear-eyed and, at times, emotionally raw film that mirrors O'Brien's punk energy.

Late Phases
Late Phases

Late Phases - Amazon Prime

As noted above, the horror genre has pushed the envelope where disability is concerned, and that’s thanks in part to its recognition that all humans are vulnerable. Disabled characters face different challenges but, like others, can survive extreme dangers if they’re intelligent, brave and just a little bit lucky. Adrian Garcia Bogliano’s film sees blind military veteran Ambrose (Nick Damici) entering a retirement community where he gradually uncovers the presence of a werewolf cult. It doesn’t give him special acute hearing or play any of the other common tricks aimed at giving blind characters more agency, but simply recognises the agency he already possesses. Alongside the supernatural problems he has to deal with, the film focuses on his relationship with his son, who sees him as helpless and is about to get a dramatic wake up call. It also makes room for its disabled (and elderly) characters to express their sexuality, something which is still rarer in cinema.

Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?

Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? - Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play

Sometimes disabled characters turn up in the oddest places. Robert Aldrich’s celebrated tale of two ageing sisters at war explores the damage done over many years as Jane (Bette Davis) has struggled to care for partially paralysed Blanche (played by her arch rival Joan Crawford), with their relationship deteriorating to the point where Blanche is essentially a prisoner in an upstairs room. In one terrifying sequence where she determines to try and escape down the stairs, Aldrich demonstrates that he knows exactly what this means, capturing the sense of danger posed by an ordinary domestic feature in a way that few directors have matched before or since. What tends to be overlooked by reviewers, however, is Jane’s mental disability. As her grip on reality disintegrates, Blanche tries to care for her, and is forced to face up to the responsibility she bears for contributing to this decline by way of an incident in their past. Though much of the film is played for laughs, with Davis exaggerating Jane’s madness, at its heart is an appreciation of the complexity of many real life care-focused relationships. The ending, in particular, also emphasises the way that most people turn a blind eye to such tragedies happening in their midst.

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly
The Diving Bell And The Butterfly

The Diving Bell And The Butterfly - MUBI

Based on the book by Jean-Dominique Bauby, who was the editor of Elle France before being almost completely paralysed by a stroke, Julian Schnabel’s film is one of very few examples of a disabled person getting to tell their own story in a dramatic film. Bauby wrote his book through the painstaking process of blinking one eye in order to express which letter and then which word he wanted to use, and the film is based in large part around his relationship with his assistant, who is portrayed as developing romantic feelings for him – very difficult to deal with as he needed her help to communicate with the woman he loved, who was disturbed by his circumstances and barely visited him. The film is far from a mere tragedy, however, as Bauby explores a landscape of memory and imagination to find freedom and live his life to the full, never losing the wit and humour that outline his humanity. It’s a bold and inventive piece of cinema.

Special People

Justin Edgar’s short about filmmaking, abled people’s attitudes to disability and a film director trying to get a group of wheelchair users up a mountain was eventually adapted in to a feature film but the original is a treat and you can watch it right here on BFI Player for free.

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