Any One Of Us


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Any One Of Us
"Basagoitia is presented as such an archetypal hero that it's hard to get past that and see the man, the human being whose story could give the film real value."

Paul Basagoitia was once one of the world's greatest mountain bikers - a Teva Mountain Games slopestyle winner and the first person ever to managed double back-flip on natural terrain. He was at the peak of his career when, in an instant, everything changed: a devastating injury to his spinal cord left him unable to walk. He was forced to adjust to a whole new way of living - one in which day to day activities suddenly presented major challenges and the people around him saw not a champion but a man struggling to keep up. This documentary, directed by Fernando Villena, follows his recovery process and looks at the experiences of others who have suffered similar injuries.

The thing about spinal cord damage is that it manifests differently in everyone. A few people manage to get back to a point where their bodies work almost as well as they did before; others will never see any improvement. Doctors say that, as a rule, there's a two year window in which significant improvements remain likely - if those seeking to recover work hard.

That Basagoitia would work hard goes without saying. training does more than just build up the body - it prepares the mind, getting a person into the habit of pushing at the boundaries of the possible. It gives him an advantage, enabling him to make the most of that time and persuading him to keep on going afterwards because cases exist of people suddenly recovering function years later. Watching the way he applies himself will be useful for many people who are facing such challenges in their own lives for the first time. Like many things in this film, however, it's sentimentalised to the point of absurdity. The music as he goes through his exercises is so Inspirational (tm) that one keeps waiting for Eye Of The Tiger to start playing. Basagoitia is presented as such an archetypal hero that it's hard to get past that and see the man, the human being whose story could give the film real value.

Villena's approach is slick and shiny throughout. His subjects clamber around big houses, drive spacious cars and never seem to worry about the cost of their day to day hospital bills,. Whilst there is of course no obligation to include the stories of less privileged individuals, the effect is to elide the experiences of the vast majority of disable people in the US and around the world, for whom such injuries have devastating economic as well as physical impacts, and this makes it difficult to view it as representative of the average experience of life with a spinal cord injury. When the participants speak, briefly, about the mental health impact of their injuries, the impression is give that none of them had experienced such problems before. We seem to have entered a bubble universe where we look at the effects of injury in isolation, disconnected from day to day life.

Who are these people? We learn very little about them until the very end, when their achievements are listed to further the case Villena wants to make. We see them as a succession of bodies despite the context in which they are asking us to think of them as something more. They have some important things to say, especially about the period of transition from living as an able-bodied person to getting to grips with a more limited life, but the narrative is simplistic. At one point the film goes into the difficulties of actually getting around as a wheelchair user due to issues with the built environment and other people's careless behaviour, and looks at how this can be internalised, making disabled people feel as if they are a problem - but sadly there's nothing to challenge that way of looking at things, nothing to point out that the people being a burden are those who put obstacles in the way. Whilst it would be nice to think that viewers would pick up on this from context, in reality we know that people don't, and that belief that one is a burden is a major factor in mental illness.

In places the film gets to grips with the issues more effectively. We are told about - and directly observe - the way that some people feel entitled to know the medical history of anyone they identify as unable to walk, and also reference the bizarre (yet frequent) assumption that disabled people can't have sex. We accompany Basagoitia through the difficult process of deciding whether or not to try experimental stem cell treatment, a journey that takes in a lot of the competing concerns around new medical procedures more widely and presents them in a refreshingly accessible way.

Everyone's experience of disability is different (something that might well be remembered at thee end, when we get a stupid comment about apparently able-bodied people using disabled toilets - in fact many people who need them have disabilities that are not obvious at all) and there will doubtless be people who relate strongly to Basagoitia's journey and find the film helpful. A bit more variety in the stories included might have added to its helpfulness in this regard. There's an unfortunate bit of disability top trumps and you-can't-possibly-have-suffered-like-me played at, which suggests that the speakers themselves are not very aware of the diversity that's out there.

Anything that improves understanding of life with an injury like this is of course a good thing, but with many more sophisticated and useful narratives around disability available in the wider community, it's a shame that this film stays in the shallow end.

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2019
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Through the story of a recovering athlete, this documentary explores the world of spinal cord injuries.

Director: Fernando Villena

Year: 2018

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: US, Canada, Mexico, Netherlands


SXSW 2019

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