A documentary film on isolation, art, and transformation after brain injury directed by Cheryl Green and Cynthia Lopez (USA, 2016)
Review by Karina Sturm, filmmaker and journalist
Who Am I To Stop It is a feature-length documentary portraying three artists in the US who live with brain injuries by following them through their lives and capturing the social challenges they face due to their disability. The film illustrates how they try to find their way back into a new life using art.
This review is written from the perspective of a disabled journalist who focuses on representing people with disabilities in media, and who has seen too many stereotypical portrayals of that community. Who Am I To Stop It is different in its accurate depiction of an invisible and misunderstood disability.
I watched the three short films that have been excerpted from the full-length documentary, featuring Kris, Brandon, and Dani. The fact that I live with a disability myself was not the primary reason why the films caught my attention; it was because of their engrossing narrative structure. The filmmakers thematized its subjects’ challenges without enforcing artificial emotional responses. This documentary is not about telling a sensational story or a beautiful recovery journey; it focuses on the here and now and shows how people with a disability can find a new identity and a sense of self.
The first story was Kris’s, an artist creating intricate paintings. People don’t realize that she has a brain injury. They see her as “the eccentric artist,” and she often feels misunderstood. “If I didn’t have the art, I would be suicidal.” For Kris, her art isn’t only a job; it is a coping mechanism that helps her to survive in a world filled with people doubting her disability. Kris’s story does not end with a heart-warming resolution like other films do, but with a hard truth that many disabled people have to face: Kris loses her apartment and gets evicted.
The second short film was Brandon’s, who is a singer. He experienced traumatic brain injury after his car was hit by a truck. Brandon made peace with his past and fights hard to regain his independence. Presented in a humorous way that helps the audience empathize with his tragic fate, he talks about the fact that he is not allowed to go anywhere alone until he manages to find the right bus stop, catch the right bus, and then get off the bus at the correct location three times in a row. When he finally managed to complete this task, he joyously says: “It has been magic.”
The third artist was Dani. She is the youngest, who struggles the most to accept her limitations. Following her pain and self-doubts was deeply shattering, because it reminded me of my own journey. She can’t quite find the right way to come to terms with her disability. “If I knew this would’ve been my life, I would’ve asked to die. I hate life,” she says. One crucial aspect of Dani’s story is the fact that her family have a totally different perspective. It’s hard for them to see her unhappy, when they are just glad that she survived the brain injury. In the end, Dani finds her voice by rapping in a place where she fits in: an LGBTQ organization.
The film tone and narrative make one assume that one or both filmmakers are disabled themselves because they know exactly the right questions to ask, and the people in the film feel comfortable to confide in them. The film protagonists were engaging, but without being emotionally manipulative. Moreover, Who Am I To Stop It is highly educational. Right from the beginning of Kris’s story, we see her in a doctor’s office, where she talks about her symptoms. The way Kris describes the effects of her brain injury immediately gave me a sense of what she had to deal with daily as a disabled person. I also appreciated the filmmakers providing closed captions and descriptive audio throughout the film. It is obvious that they had the disability community in mind when they produced those films.
In summary, all short films felt honest and real. They were short enough to keep my attention but long enough to provide the necessary information to understand and relate to its contributors. Who Am I To Stop It is one of a few films that accurately portray disabled people, and this alone makes it incredibly worthwhile.
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Watch the trailer here.
Conflict of Interest
As I was working on my own documentary film about living with EDS, another disabled media maker put me in touch with Cheryl. We have since formed a friendship discussing everything from Audio Description in film to ableism and the lack of disabled media makers telling our own stories. My review of her films was not a favor to Cheryl, but my honest opinion about Who Am I To Stop It as a fellow filmmaker and journalist.
Who Am I To Stop It is a fiscally-sponsored project of The Hollywood Theatre and is distributed by New Day Films.
Correspondence with the reviewer: https://www.karina-sturm.com/en/contact/