Acclaimed as "wonderful,"1 "moving,"2 "insightful and entertaining,"3 Michael Barnett's Becoming Bulletproof (2014) is an award winning documentary focused on the making of the short film, Bulletproof Jackson (2012). Produced by the nonprofit, Zeno Mountain Farm, Bulletproof Jackson is a story of courage, about two young men standing up to bullies, one in the past (in a Western) and one in the modern day. What is unusual about this production is the cast, which is a mix of disabled and able actors. What is unusual about Becoming Bulletproof is its approach to that fact and the effort it makes to show how such a production is possible through the collaborative and energetic participation of such a diverse group of people.
Becoming Bulletproof wastes no time informing its audience that they are in a film about a film. The very first image is a clapperboard quickly followed by a medium close up of a young man in western garb with a blurry southwest town visible in the background. A man off screen calls out, "Alright Jeremy, focus buddy, game time here." As the young man (Jeremy Vest) looks down, the colors of the shot fade to a golden sepia hue and the image morphs from full screen to wide. A voice calls "action!" even as dramatic violins begin to thrum. The narrative of Becoming Bulletproof is sometimes disjointed as it bounces between actor's homes, chronological production scenes (some shot in the old west and some not), and talking heads, but the repeated use of this aspect ratio transitioning between Becoming Bulletproof and Bulletproof Jackson assists in anchoring the timeline in the production process as well as emphasizing the authenticity and production value of the end product, Bulletproof Jackson.
Becoming Bulletproof departs from some of the main tropes that other making-of documentaries tend to utilize. Film directors and the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that stand between them and the completion of their film (Wrath of Gods and perhaps the most celebrated, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, for example) are a mainstay but Becoming Bulletproof nearly ignores the crew and sparingly includes the director of Bulletproof Jackson, Peter Lazarus. Even more important than the turn away from the director and toward the cast, Becoming Bulletproof does not position disability (or just the presence of those actors with disability) as an obstacle requiring a herculean effort to overcome. As we follow the production process, with a cast that is comprised of people of varying abilities and kinds of disabilities, this fact is framed not as overwhelming but rather as difference that can, with flexibility and empathy, be accommodated and add value. By showing how accommodations can be made during the production process, Becoming Bulletproof effectively throws down the gauntlet to those involved in film production who have never thought of accommodating or who view accommodation as impossible (and thereby justify both the lack of representation of disability and the use of able bodied actors to play disabled characters).
After the initial old-west shot at the very beginning of Becoming Bulletproof, the film effectively resets and we find ourselves not on a set but instead in the Murray Residence. A.J. Murray is in bed and is being assisted by his mother. A.J. explains that he was born stillborn and had to be revived and he explains how CP has affected his body. Despite the fact that our introduction to A.J. is really an introduction to his disability first and his life and goals second, Becoming Bulletproof does not quite lapse into "inspiration porn." A.J. is not flattened into a hero or a saint just because of his continued existence. The closest Becoming Bulletproof gets to this is really through the conversations about A.J.'s chronic pain by people that care for him but A.J. is never reduced to just represent disability, CP, or pain. A.J. gets a lot of screen time speaking directly to the camera about his life, his goals, his frustrations and the joy he gets from acting first hand.
It is mostly through A.J. that we follow the production of Bulletproof Jackson in chronological order. A.J. introduces the viewer to Zeno Mountain Farm by describing how he would email one of the co-founders, Will Halby, regularly to check if there were any openings for actors. Each year Zeno Mountain Farm produces a film with a cast that is comprised of a mix of unpaid, able and disabled actors. Zeno commits to inviting participants back again each year, fostering community and friendships among the participants. A.J. gets the call that there is an opening in the current production and is suddenly on a plane, flying to L.A. to make Bulletproof Jackson.
The very first production meeting for Bulletproof Jackson is an exciting and energetic affair. Will Halby tells the assembled cast that "We want to make a film that can go to film festivals….we are going to make a real movie." Will Halby is adamant throughout the film in his desire to make this Zeno Mountain Production a "real" film, a "good" film and ultimately to create "great art." Later in the film Halby states, "Our mission is not to educate anybody about anything. I want to create great movies, create great art and create great friendships and things that last forever." These stated goals and what we see of Bulletproof Jackson itself emphasize the differences between Becoming Bullletproof and Bulletproof Jackson. Becoming Bulletproof is a film meant to educate. Life with (not just acting with) CP, Williams Syndrome, and Down Syndrome are addressed through small vignettes that depart from production and take us inside the homes of A.J. Murray, Jeremy Vest and Zack Gottsagen. Living with these disabilities is explained through a mix of relatives, Zeno Mountain able-bodied participants and first person accounts. Becoming Bulletproof is at its strongest when it links the life experience of these actors with their life on set, educating the audience not only to how demanding a particular scene might be for the actor but how accommodations are made that can facilitate their success.
Zeno Mountain Farm's film projects match disabled participants with able-bodied helpers. After scripts are given out we see people paired up, reading lines to and for each other. A.J. notes that he has a visual impairment so he needs to hear his lines and commit them to memory and then we see his partner reading his lines to him as he tries to memorize and repeat them. Memorizing dialogue is not easy, A.J., playing the mayor, is nervous and frustrated as they work through the lines and he has to take several takes of his first scene but he gets through it. When we get to a scene with Zack, playing the villain of Bulletproof Jackson, in front of a green screen, we see the repeated takes, changes in directions and some humor necessary for Zack to get his lines just right. Peter Lazarus notes that while lines might sometimes be difficult, Zach is really good at physically showing emotion. There is also a scene with Jeremy, as Bulletproof Jackson, entering the saloon and impressing the patrons with a magic trick. It is evident sometimes the director has to push Jeremy to re-focus but again humor and flexibility win out.
In these scenes, Becoming Bulletproof shows rather than tells the audience that producing a film with disabled actors is not only possible but productive and fun. It stands contrary to the idea that the lack of disabled characters and successful disabled actors in big studio productions is the fault of disability itself and instead highlights creativity, flexibility and just plain willingness as the key ingredients that Bulletproof Jackson has and Hollywood does not. Becoming Bulletproof covers a variety of topics that are often left out of popular representations of disability; sexuality, dating, and chronic pain. After the final shot has been completed, we return to A.J., making his way back to Atlanta. A.J. explains what participating in and contributing to Bulletproof Jackson has meant for him and it is through A.J.'s direct address that the consequences of the status quo, the lack of not only representation but the lack of opportunities to contribute to society at large, are given voice and feeling.
While Bulletproof Jackson is at this point done, Becoming Bulletproof continues. One year later we travel with A.J. to a special screening of Bulletproof Jackson and we are reunited with the cast who get to watch their film on the big screen. This footage saves Becoming Bulletproof from ending with A.J.'s tears of grief and quite literally finds us instead elated at A.J.'s tears of joy. While Becoming Bulletproof clearly makes an effort to leave its audience on a high, it does so while reminding us of its critique. A.J. gets the last word and his demand for " a seat at the table of pop culture" makes explicit the pedagogical aim of Becoming Bulletproof: to explain why that seat is necessary and show how it is possible.
Becoming Bulletproof may prove very useful from a pedagogical stance as an entryway into discussing the lack of disability representation in mainstream film, one that focuses on what people can do rather than what they cannot. Becoming Bulletproof may however prove frustrating to those coming from a disability studies background as it offers peeks at Bulletproof Jackson, a rare production with disabled actors whose story is not actually about disability within the confines of a film that is determined to educate about disability. Becoming Bullletproof makes the lack of films like Bulletproof Jackson keenly felt, particularly in light of the fact that Becoming Bulletproof was picked up by Virgil Films in 2016 and has enjoyed wide distribution across various formats (including some streaming services and a DVD with an audio description option) but seeing Bulletproof Jackson itself need not be deferred.
Link to Bulletproof Jackson on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/85765051
Jaworowski, Ken, "Review: 'Becoming Bulletproof' Follows a Group of Disabled Adults in a Film Within a Film," The New York Times, September 25, 2015, Date Accessed: 2017/01/15. https://nyti.ms/2r5A4bm.
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Rainer, Peter, "'Becoming Bulletproof' is haphazard but moving... " The Christian Science Monitor. September 25, 2015 Friday . Date Accessed: 2017/01/15. http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Movies/2015/0925/Becoming-Bulletproof-is-haphazard-but-moving.
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O'Hara, Mary, "We need more disabled people on movie and TV screens..." The Guardian. October 28, 2015, Date Accessed: 2017/01/15. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/oct/28/disabled-people-movie-tv-becoming-bulletproof.
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- Becoming Bulletproof. Directed by Michael Barnett. 2014. New York, NY Virgil Films, 2016. DVD.
- Bulletproof Jackson. Directed by Peter Lazarus. 2012. Zeno Mountain Farm, 2014. Vimeo.
- Jaworowski, Ken, "Review: 'Becoming Bulletproof' Follows a Group of Disabled Adults in a Film Within a Film," The New York Times, September 25, 2015, Date Accessed: 2017/01/15. https://nyti.ms/2r5A4bm.
- O'Hara, Mary, "We need more disabled people on movie and TV screens..." The Guardian. October 28, 2015, Date Accessed: 2017/01/15. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/oct/28/disabled-people-movie-tv-becoming-bulletproof.
- Rainer, Peter, "'Becoming Bulletproof' is haphazard but moving... " The Christian Science Monitor. September 25, 2015 Friday . Date Accessed: 2017/01/15. http://www.csmonitor.com/The-Culture/Movies/2015/0925/Becoming-Bulletproof-is-haphazard-but-moving.