Neurological Disorders on Film at the 58th British Film Institute (BFI) London Film Festival, October 2014
Film and television have long explored narratives involving neurological disorders, but have achieved only patchy success in engaging with the emotional, physical and social implications of this category of impairments. The BFI London Film Festival (LFF) has previously proven a key platform for the work for international filmmakers offering new perspectives on healthcare, chronic illness and disability, and this year – its 58th – was no exception.
Indian drama Margarita, with a Straw arrived at the LFF fresh from its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (4th-14th September 2014), trailing an accolade for Best Script at the Sundance Festival Screenwriter’s Lab. It tells the story of Laila (Kalki Koechlin), a teenager and student from Delhi with cerebral palsy who wins a scholarship at New York University. There, she meets young blind activist Khanum (Sayani Gupta) and their close friendship gradually develops into a sexual relationship.
Koechlin and Gupta – both able-bodied actors – prepared intensively for the physical and psychological demands of their respective roles. Koechlin spent two-and-a-half months living in a wheelchair, while Gupta received sensory training with the National Association of the Blind in India (www.nabindia.org). The casting of able-bodied actors in disabled roles continues to be a contested trend in the film industry, and in the post-screening Q&A, Director, Producer and Screenwriter Shonali Bose explained she had initially searched for disabled actors but hadn’t found anyone she felt had been right for the roles.
This debate notwithstanding, both actors turn in terrific performances as two young women struggling with the dual stigma of disability and same-sex desire; struggles which intensify when Laila returns home to her conservative family, in a country where homosexuality is prohibited by law. The concept of ‘normality’ poses continuing challenges to Laila’s emotional honesty as she explores her own identity in relation to these twin categories of ‘otherness’. Early in the film, an intimate close-up registers her consternation and discomfort as two men lift her wheelchair up a set of stairs, complaining about the inconvenience of the faulty lift. Moments like this feature occasionally, registering the insensitivity and tokenism of some perceptions of impairment, but the film’s primary focus is on Laila as a capable and charismatic individual. She is a young woman alive to the sensuality of everyday experiences, from the auditory pleasure of a crowded music gig, to the sensory gratification of a warm bath. Like most teenagers, she is also full of sexual curiosity, and these desires are strikingly visualized in a rear-view shot of her silhouetted before her bedroom window against the night sky, masturbating in her wheelchair. Bose notes that “in India, we haven’t dealt with the sexuality of the disabled, and that excited me as a film-maker”, and Margarita will be released there in early 2015. This commendable film is marginally compromised by its closing scenes, in which Laila’s ultimate acceptance of herself is clumsily communicated, but nevertheless offers an arresting portrayal of a vibrant and tenacious young woman, who happens to have cerebral palsy.
In British director Bryn Higgins’s Electricity, Agyness Deyn plays central character Lily O’Connor, a young woman with epilepsy searching for her lost brother. The film, supported by the Wellcome Trust and produced in consultation with the Epilepsy Society (www.epilepsysociety.org.uk), is the latest instalment in a long history of screen representations of epilepsy, including Cleopatra (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963), …First Do No Harm (dir. Jim Abrahams, 1997), The Lost Prince (dir. Stephen Poliakoff, 2003) and Zach, a Film About Epilepsy (dir. Christian de Rezendes, 2009). The physical tonic-clonic convulsions that accompany electrical over-activity in the brain have drawn interest from filmmakers since the early twentieth century, and in 2007, sociologist Professor Toba Schwaber Kerson, concerned about what she believed were stigmatizing depictions of epilepsy on screen, assembled a dataset comprising over 250 films and television series from Europe, America and Asia. She noted common themes across the sample; the portrayal of epilepsy often functioned to add moments of drama to the storyline, or to construct specific types of characters (typically insane, violent and/or victimized). According to her interpretation, many films used epilepsy “to enhance the voyeuristic experience of the film audience as they watch the actions of those having seizures.” Given these tendencies, the challenge for directors seeking to depict epilepsy on film is to strike a responsible balance between conceding – and utilizing – this enduring visual fascination with seizures, and encouraging an audience to move beyond this spectacle to consider the lived experiences of those managing the condition.
Electricity is based on the book of the same name by Ray Robinson, which made use of visual forms by drawing on the conventions of visual poetry or shape poetry, in which the typographical arrangement of words is used as an additional expressive element. Some individuals with Temporal Lobe epilepsy experience ‘Alice in Wonderland syndrome’, characterized by temporary distortion of sensory modalities, and Lily’s hallucinatory episodes register the phantasmagorical nature of these perceptual phenomena. Higgins fully exploits cinema’s potential to visualize subjective experience through technical creativity; point-of-view shots from Lily’s perspective are visceral and immersive; surroundings bend and warp, and abstract close-ups of everyday objects suggest physical and cognitive dissociation. In other instances, stylized sequences depict sharp flashes of light enveloping Lily’s body, transporting both character and viewer from familiar environments into the realms of illusion. Jump cuts from one location to another – floor to bed, pavement to hospital – draw the audience into Lily’s world of amnesia and lost time. It is these innovations, in an otherwise uninspiring narrative of family drama, that suggest a promising new direction filmmakers might take in representing epilepsy on screen.
Margarita, with a Straw is showing at the Talinn Black Nights Film Festival, Estonia, on 24th, 25th and 27th November, 2014 (http://2014.poff.ee/eng/films/programmes.p/international-official-competition/margarita-with-a-straw) and at the Brisbane Asia Pacific Film Festival, on the 6th, 12th and 14th December, 2014 (http://brisbaneasiapacificfilmfestival.com/film-archive/margarita-with-a-straw/). It will be released in India in early 2015.
Electricity is showing as part of the 12th Cinecity Brighton Film Festival, 9pm on November 24th (www.cine-city.co.uk). It is releasing in the UK through Soda Pictures on December 5th 2014.
 Leslie Felperin, “Margarita, with a Straw: ‘The sexuality of the disabled excited me as a film-maker'”. www.theguardian.com. Thursday 23 October 2014.
 Toba Schwaber Kerson. “Lasting impressions of seizures and epilepsy in film and on television.” The Epilepsy Report 2 (June): 7-13. (9)
Catherine Oakley is a doctoral researcher in the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York, UK, where her thesis investigates the interrelationship between medicine, literary fiction and early cinema throughout the period 1880-1925. She is convenor of the ‘Rethinking Disability on Screen’ symposium, to be held at the University of York in May 2015 (rethinkingdisabilityonscreen.com).