Exploring Disability in Film

Our film and media correspondent, Dr Khalid Ali, reports on the London Film Festival which takes place from the 4th to the 15th of October 2017.

Andrei Tarkovsky, the Russian director, once said that ‘art portrays the desire of human beings to achieve a balance between their materialistic needs and moral standards’. The attitudes of a society towards disability is a perfect example where there is an inherent dilemma between the ethical duty of care towards people with disability and the materialistic approach of viewing their needs as a burden on the economy. Exploring that challenging dichotomy, the London Film Festival (LFF) this year has a strong focus on telling stories of people with physical and mental disability.

In a report by the British charity Scope, we learn the following alarming facts:

Two thirds (67%) of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people;

Over a third (36%) of people tend to think of disabled people as not productive as everyone else;

A quarter (24%) of disabled people has experienced attitudes or behaviours where other people expected less of them because of their disability.

The medical and social models of disability are explored in the LFF opening film Breathe (Andy Serkis, UK). Based on the life story of Robin Cavendish and his wife, Diana, the film sensitively shows how they fought the discriminating medical approach prevalent in the 1950s of labelling disabled people as unworthy humans. Teddy Hall, a family friend and engineer, designs for Robin the first wheelchair fitted with a respirator. The defiant trio then campaign worldwide for the rights of disabled people paving the way for landmark disability legislation in the UK.

 It is sad to note that in spite of the pioneering efforts of people like Robin Cavendish, the UN panel recently criticised the UK for its failure to uphold disabled people rights in education, and work.

The WHO report on the global impact of disability states that over one billion people globally experience disability. They are three times more likely to be denied health care, and four times more likely to be treated badly in the healthcare system.  It is not surprising then to see several LFF films navigating the ‘course of disability’ coming from several countries; the UK, Ireland, Germany, Austria, USA, Canada, and Chile.

More disabled people are facing poverty and social exclusion; and this theme is explored in Resurrecting Hassan (Carlo Guillermo Proto, Canada/Chile) a documentary film in which a Canadian family of father, mother and daughter all suffering from blindness seek to reconnect with their deceased son, Hassan, by following the cult of a Russian mystic, Giorgori Grabovoi.

Family support as a positive factor in the well-being of people with disability is prominent in Breathe and Resurrecting Hassan. Alternatively, Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes, USA) shows the devastating impact of family absence in the story of Ben and Rose, two orphaned children with hearing impairment. Based on Brian Selznick’s 2011 book, a story of searching for love and compassion unfolds in two parallel timelines in 1927 and 1977 in New York.

Stronger (David Gordon Green, USA) tells the true story of Jeff Bauman, a man who lost both legs in the terrorist bomb attack in Boston in 2013. Avoiding sentimentality by showing Jeff as an ordinary man with no superhero powers, the film explores the conflicting emotions of hopelessness alongside a strong will to achieve full recovery. It asks some compelling questions: what makes a life worth living, who decides, and at what cost to the individual and the society.

The human rights of people with special needs such as those with Down’s syndrome and their capacity to make adult decisions are analysed in the documentary film The Grown-Ups (Maite Alberdi, Chile/Netherlands/France). Anita and Andres are two adults with Down’s syndrome trying to get married, but their wishes are ridiculed as they are ‘disabled people’. In Chile the government law dictates that ‘grown-up adults’ cannot legally marry if they are not ‘intellectually mature’.  Dealing with disability is a complex phenomenon where fair legislations and marriage and employment laws are all needed to address societal and cultural misconceptions.

The mental health needs of people with sensory impairment, and the intriguing relationships with their doctors are seen and heard in Mademoiselle Paradis (Barbara Albert, Austria/Germany).  Maria Theresia von Paradis is a gifted blind musician who bonds in un-conventional ways with her treating physician, Dr Franz Mesmer.

The Drummer and the Keeper (Nick Kelly, Ireland) probes further into psychological traumas in living with a disability, and the need for companionship. It follows a young man, Christopher, affected by Asperger’s syndrome and his friendship with a musician, Gabriel, who suffers from bipolar disorder.  Juxtaposing art, music and sports as ‘means of salvation’, the director calls for understanding and embracing difference.

One of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable films in the LFF is The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, USA).  Elisa, a young woman who cannot communicate with language since childhood, is embroiled in an ET-like attempt to protect an enigmatic aquatic creature. Combing elements of humour, mystery and suspense, Elisa’s heroic endeavours to save her ‘underwater friend’ touch the audience, highlighting that human beings with or without disability can all communicate and bond meaningfully.

From real life stories, to fictional ones, the LFF 2017 certainly offers food for thought as well as huge entertainment and joy.