DSQ > Spring 2008, Volume 28, No.2

The first time I read Colin Barnes' Disabling Imagery and the Media was more than ten years ago. The long list of stereotypes of disabled people amazed me. Though it was an important step on the road to a more aware identity, it left me wondering if it is possible at all to portray disabled people. Can the experience of being disabled be explored without exploiting disabled people? It is a sensitive subject, as recently shown by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts' (BAFTA) refusal to screen a working copy of Richard Butchins' The Last American Freak Show. The documentary is about an underground troupe of disabled and non-disabled performers traveling along the American west coast, performing in the style of the early 20th century freak show. The occasion for the screening was a joint event between BAFTA and X'08 — the eighth London disability film festival. As Butchins phrased it, BAFTA "freaked out" about showing the film.

To me, the really interesting part of the BAFTA debacle is their suggestion to replace The Last American Freak Show with Lars and the Real Girl, a film about a small-town guy and his friend Bianca, a life-size doll. A comedy, scripted, directed and played by non-disabled people was considered more aesthetically proper for the event in question, than a documentary of disabled people's real lives filmed by a disabled filmmaker. Of course it was! And it is — from the non-disabled, dominant view the proper portrayal of disability. BAFTA acknowledges this in their statement:

Bafta have simply not banned Mr. Butchins' film as he suggests. Any comments were not a critique on Mr. Butchins' work but against a pre-agreed criteria for the subject matter [my emphasis].

For what are disabling stereotypes if not pre-agreed criteria? However, because the criteria generally are concerned with the way the characters are portrayed, i.e. the story, we tend to forget the form of the film. I would argue that stereotyping of disability depends both on the story and the form of artwork, and that the form actually is as important — if not more.

Dogme 1995, the Danish film collective with its manifesto of purity, shot films with a single hand-held camera in existing conditions, rejecting lighting, optical filters and everything else they considered manipulation of the audience. They opposed the existing form of films which they regarded as the creation of illusions through which emotions were mediated. Instead their "supreme goal" was to "force the truth" out of characters and settings. The Dogme technique influenced Lars von Trier's Breaking the Waves where an oil rig worker Jan returns to his wife after being paralyzed in an accident at work. Incapable of having sex he forces her to have sex with other men, leading to her sacrificing herself to cure him. Breaking the Waves is created in a documentary style emulating the character of homemade video clips — making us believe in it.

The contradiction is that the closer the form of the film is to any perceived "truth" (in this case the quality connecting it with our own filmed memories), the more manipulated the audience gets. In Von Trier's film the audience swallows the story with its flawed and atrocious portrayal of disability because the form makes us believe it is the truth. In reality it is a scripted story revealing nothing but the prejudiced view of the writer. It is atrocious and prejudiced in my opinion. In reality, it probably meets pre-agreed criteria for the subject matter.

When did BAFTA get so sensitive to freak shows? They gave awards for best film, best actor and best production design to The Elephant Man, where John Merrick is saved from the freak show he is part of only to be exploited as a medical curiosity. Could it be that the Merrick story is about non-disabled man saving "the freak" from himself — making him civilized? Judging from the synopsis, trailer and clip available on the Internet of The Last American Freak Show its "freaks" do not want to be saved from themselves. Instead, they invite the audience to partake in their carnival. One of the actors sings: "I'm a beast and so are you, though you wear clothes and makeup pretending it's not true."

My guess is they have found a form for their art work that makes this statement true enough to make it a scary possibility for the audience.

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