December 13, 2005

The Politics of Popcorn

"What do movies have to do with our mission?" asked a local disability rights activist as I detailed plans to screen the short films Lormen and Naomi's Corset and facilitate a talk back session at the Margaret Mead Film Festival.

I was at a loss for words. Stunned. How best to explain?

"There we'll be in living color," I proclaimed, "sharing the bill with various cultures from across the globe. Think of it as community building; an important part of public outreach and education." The explanation seemed to suffice for the moment, but still the question nagged at me.

Later I realized I'd asked myself the same question, in a different context, almost five years ago and was as surprised then as the questioner above with the answers that emerged.

At that time, I was the communications director of a national animal advocacy organization, a non-profit based in Sacramento. As the media point person, I was responsible for developing and pitching stories to so-called major media outlets -- on both regional and national levels -- and working with campaign staff to properly frame our issues so that the uninitiated could better understand them. It is harder than you'd suspect. While most people love the dogs and cats they share their lives with, and will condemn overt cruelty to all animals, such affection does not seem to extend to animal advocates. That was the primary roadblock, not the animals themselves, but the perception of the humans who work on their behalf.

As far as the most people in the media, and the general public who digest their stories are concerned, animal advocates can be one of two things: saintly old ladies in tennis shoes adopting homeless cats from their local shelter or tattooed, pierced anarchists hell-bent on burning down the research lab located somewhere on the outskirts of town. It is easy to see why when stuck within these limited frames, the very real cruelty animals suffer is often overlooked. Perhaps it is by design. Getting past the commonly accepted frames to address the larger issues at hand (government waste, corporate fraud, lax cruelty laws, inhumane transportation practices, etc.) was an ongoing and valuable challenge.

As a self-proclaimed 'hard' news guy, always looking to link our issues with the bigger picture, I balked at our executive directors suggestion I attend a swank awards show celebrating positive depictions of animals by filmmakers, tv producers, writers and directors and newspaper editors in, of all places, Beverly Hills! What did Hollywood have to do with our mission? What could red carpets, flash bulbs and celebrities tell me that I didn't already know?

Media was my beat though so despite my protests, I was elected (er, drafted) to go. Maybe I'd get a chance to have a drink with one of the producers at "Dateline" and place a story or two while I was at it, I rationalized, and reluctantly booked my ticket.

On the surface, the program itself -- called "The Genesis Awards" -- was not all that different from what I'd expected, but as the show progressed my prejudices began to crumble. There was something going on here. Something I did not expect. The process of awarding media's movers and shakers was having an impact, you could see it in their faces, hear it in their voices ... being in the same place at the same time, viewing and hearing everything together in one sitting, one after the other, seemed to ... legitimize their work. Suddenly what had perhaps initially been one story among many others, meant to do little else than fill a 3-minute gap in the evening news became much more. When combined with dozens of others the cumulative effect of each award; of each story was heightened. The same sentiment seemed to hold true for the movie writers, producers and directors in attendance.

Upon returning to my office, I almost immediately wrote the organizers a letter detailing my change of heart. Later that year I was asked to become part of the screening and selection committee which selects The Genesis Awards and have proudly served in that capacity since.

Which brings us back to the topic at hand, what do movies have to do with disability rights? Genesis Awards founder, Gretchen Wyler, often relates a sentiment which may just as easily apply to disability issues as it does to the treatment of animals:

"If an issue doesn't appear in print, on television, or in the movies to most people it doesn't exist."

Clearly, the ways in which the disability experience has been perceived by the media remains severely limited. I spoke to a group of graduate students about the depictions of people with disabilities in film, television and literature last week and one clear sentiment emerged, if a story -- this is true with both news items and narratives -- doesn't fit into an existing frame, that is to say if it isn't about heroic crips, tragic crips or evil crips then most people can't even process it because, for them a more accurate frame of reference does not yet exist.

Combined with the harsh reality of the marketplace the problem is substantially compounded. If movies like Murderball, 39 Pounds of Love and The Ringer fail to attract substantial audiences at the box office, then odds are the movies we really want to see ... the movies which focus on our individual and collective fights for civil and human rights, the disability rights equivilents of "Norma Rae" or "Gandhi" will never get made because the powers that be will conclude there is no market for them.

Moreover, a case could be made that until those not yet in the disability club or in the know better understand the very real lives of people with disabilities; until they can better identify with our stories, disabled people, for all intents and purposes, will continue to be invisible. Until new narratives are seen, heard and read the general public will not be able to develop a new, more accurate frame of reference by which they can better understand our lives -- and by extension, our issues.

Can you think of a better reason to go to the movies -- and to bring a friend or two along?

Can you think of a better reason to host a film screening and discussion?

Me neither.

"39 Pounds of Love" and "The Ringer" may not be perfect, but they appear to be light years ahead of last years gimp films du jour "Million Dollar Baby" and "The Sea Inside" which were still stuck in the tired ol' "cure 'em or kill 'em" paradigm.

If this years crop of films are any indication it seems the film industry is slowly getting hip to the idea we exist outside of the "triumph over tragedy" and "pitiful" person stereotypes.

We would be right to celebrate our cinematic progress. But we can't stop there.

Where is the movie depicting the League for the Physically Handicapped as they occupied WPA offices during the great depression to fight job discrimination? When will we see the story of Ed Roberts and the birth of the ILC's? Or the student uprising at Gallaudet in 1988?

We need to do more than complain these movies aren't being made. We need to write those scripts and direct those films.

Until then, we can keep the ball rolling by showing there is an audience for more accurate depictions of disability in film. To get from where we are to where we want to be, we've got to use EVERY weapon in our arsenal to move disability issues forward.

Even popcorn.

Posted by Lawrence Carter-Long

Posted on December 13, 2005