Writer Matthew Mulcahy speaks at length with the Emmy-winning filmmaker and activist about championing disability in film
In 2008, Lindsey Dryden started work on her first documentary feature Lost and Sound. The film reflected on her own experiences of hearing loss, and rediscovering music through a different prism outside of sound. Lost and Sound premiered at South by Southwest in 2012, and since then, Lindsey has continued to challenge who it is that gets to tell stories concerning disability in the industry. An Emmy-winning producer, director and vocal activist, Lindsey’s work remains nothing short of inspiring to disabled filmmakers like myself.
When did you become aware of the challenges facing disabled creatives and disability representation in the industry?
I produced Unrest with Jennifer Brea in 2014. She was the first wheelchair-using director that I’d worked with and I think she was the first disabled director to enter a lot of the spaces that we went into with that film. During the making and distribution of Unrest, I discovered even more about the embedded expectations from the industry about what a director is and what the industry expects we can do.
On Unrest we worked with the amazing Jim LeBrecht, a sound designer who happens to be a wheelchair-user and brings so much narrative expertise to storytelling. We had four heads of department who had disabilities: myself, the director, executive producer Debbie Hoffmann and Jim. That felt pretty unusual and also kind of magical because that’s a very talented group of people with a lot of delicacy and sensitivity. We worked in ways that had to allow for ‘what does it mean to work with a chronic illness’, and naturally created methodologies that allowed us all to do our jobs at sustainable paces for us personally, and not just based on that ‘stamina equals talent’ idea that’s prevalent in our industry.
In 2018 at the International Documentary Association’s Getting Real gathering, Jim and some colleagues had put together the first ever assembly of Deaf and disabled filmmakers. And there were loads of us! For all of us it’s only one part of our identity, yet to be in that room with that many incredibly talented people and to know that we had something in common that was specific, that had been marginalised and wasn’t seen often in cinema, at least not in progressive ways, was really exciting.
I got together with Jim, a filmmaker and policy advisor in Washington D.C. called Day Al-Mohamed and a filmmaker and ally called Alysa Nahmias and we founded FWD-Doc. We got the sense there was so much we could do in community with fellow Deaf and disabled filmmakers. Recently, with films like Crip Camp (which is the story of Jim’s life and the story of so many iconic people in U.S. disability civil rights history), we’ve become more aware of how there’s so many of us and yet we so rarely see ourselves represented in cinema and we so rarely see ourselves represented by ourselves in cinema.
Could you elaborate on what you mentioned about the perception of a director in distribution?
One example might be that you’re booking your distribution tour and a cinema chain describes themselves as accessible. So that means Deaf and disabled people can get into the building, they can get into the screening room and they can sit in the audience. But we discovered it doesn’t mean they can get on the stage to do a Q&A or introduce their film, because at some point in the planning of that building no one ever assumed that a person with a disability could be the director and would be the person who needed to get up on stage in front of other people and lead that Q&A. So that was something that we ran into on films like Unrest.
It felt symbolic that the folks building cinemas had thought ‘Yeah, you can sit in the audience but you can’t get on the stage’. So that was something we found quite striking in that process. The symbolism of that is really important because isn’t that why we make films in the first place? There are few greater moments of significance in culture than seeing yourself existing on-screen and realising that you’re valuable. The power of being on screen and on stage like that is a really important thing to consider.
You’re a member of the BFI’s Disability Advisory Board. Could you tell us what the board does and how you came to be a part of it?
I was invited to join by Jennifer Smith, Mel Hoyes and Iyare Igiehon at the BFI. I’m a relatively new member and it includes brilliant people like David Proud, Kyla Harris, Kim Tserkezie and Shani Dhanda. The core aims of the Advisory Board are to talk directly about how the BFI and the wider industry can embrace disability perspectives and talents in a richer and more representative, equitable and genuine way. What’s really exciting is the sheer range of perspectives within those conversations. We might be talking about representation, access, ableism, commissioning, what it means to be inclusive on set; there’s so much to cover.
We created a campaign called Press Reset last year during the early phase of the pandemic. It was a time at which cinema and the arts broke. People were suddenly not able to engage with this significant part of culture and art. And for a long time, it had already been broken for Deaf and disabled people, so it felt like a moment at which we could say ‘let’s not build back the same barriers that we created in the first place’. Stories don’t forget or exclude disabled people by accident, buildings don’t get built inaccessibly by accident, we don’t create films that are only pitying or inspired by disabled people by accident. These are decisions often made without considering the one billion Deaf and disabled people in the world who could and should be included thoughtfully, because they’re often not at the table where those decisions are being made. This group is just one of the many ways that Deaf and disabled people can be at that table and contribute to that decision-making more inclusively going forward.
Do you think there needs to be more education to producers, casting directors, even younger audiences about the harmfulness of casting non-disabled actors as characters with disabilities?
My point of view is just one of many and I’m always learning from amazing Deaf and disabled artists, advocates and thinkers. There’s a debate as to whether a person who doesn’t have lived experience of an identity can play that identity. Some say, ‘it’s acting, people can do whatever they like’. But there’s also a real sense that if you’re portraying someone’s marginalised experience and an experience that has often been underrepresented and misrepresented in ways that can be so damaging to the people who really live those lives then it’s crucial to do it authentically; it’s much more than ‘just acting’.
We all need to be having really honest conversations about what power means in storytelling. We have enormous power as filmmakers. How do we want to use it? Do we want to extract people’s experience or do we want to include people’s experience? My point of view is that extractive filmmaking, in either documentaries or inappropriate casting, is a crucial part of what we should be changing as a creative industry. Ableism is something that lots of people don’t understand yet and it’s fundamental that we discuss what that means because it damages people. It isn’t just an academic concept; it’s real. It tells people we’re unworthy, like we’re not welcome or valued in society and that is a deeply destructive impact that cinema can have if it’s extracting stories and telling them in ways that aren’t thoughtful about where those stories come from, what the realities and nuances are.
If we’re trying to tell amazing stories on screen, we must give ourselves the best chance to tell those stories with authenticity and deep research and by involving rich perspectives at a creative decision-making level. The quality of everyone’s storytelling suffers if it’s led just by one or two people who’ve decided that they know everything about a community, an experience or an identity. The more truly equitable and inclusive we make our casts and crews the better we make our storytelling and its impact on the world; one follows the other.
What do you think non-disabled filmmakers, either just starting or already established in the industry, should be doing to ensure fairer opportunities for disabled creatives behind and in front of the camera?
Legendary disability rights activist Judy Heumann said: “Disabled people in film, on television and in other forms of media should reflect the reality of our lives. Our joys, sorrows, struggles, victories and the everyday issues we all face. Only then will we only be able to effectively counteract the themes of our being invisible or seen only as incapable, a drain or a tragedy”. Part of what we have to do as filmmakers, whether we’re starting out or established, is think ‘who’s at the table here? Does my thinking, my casting or my crewing up include all of the perspectives that exist in society? Women, people of colour, Deaf and disabled people, LGBTQ+ people, economically vulnerable people?’
It starts with questioning who is welcome in our spaces. I don’t mean cinemas and from an accessibility point of view, although that is part of it. But in our creative decision-making spaces. Who do we write with, who do we cast with? New and established filmmakers can think deeply and take steps to welcome a genuine range of collaborators, now more than ever. It’s so easy to find new colleagues through Twitter or in groups like Queer Producers, FWD-Doc, Brown Girls Doc Mafia. It’s actually really straightforward to meet people with perspectives different from our own these days; what it takes is being prepared to genuinely listen. We can all be proactive about expanding our perspectives about who gets the opportunity to contribute to storytelling, and finding ways to enact that.
The last year has been difficult enough for anyone hoping to break into the industry. Do you have any advice for disabled creatives looking to begin a career in filmmaking?
Community is a positive part of what’s come out of this last difficult year, and it’s always what sustains us throughout all the challenges of filmmaking. There are new opportunities to create community, meet people and engage on your own terms; digital festivals we may not have been able to attend in-person before, online events and gatherings (the good ones that are accessible with captions and BSL interpreters, at least). Groups and organisations that are doing powerful work to create opportunities for Deaf and disabled artists, both new and experienced.
We created FWD-Doc so we can talk with our peers about the stories we’re telling, the battles we’re having, the highs and the lows of the creative process. So I’d obviously say organisations like FWD-Doc are really worth talking to. There’s also a brilliant ‘Deaf and Disabled People in TV’ Facebook group, the Inclusive Cinema Project, the Disabled Arts Networking Community (DANC) with over 600 members which is a brilliant community to go into. There’s the Disability Visibility Project, Disability Arts Online, BFI Press Reset and others.
The most important thing we can all be doing is talking to each other, sharing opportunities and excitement about projects to come, crewing up from within our community as well as other communities. Somewhere like FWD-Doc is such a pleasure to be because people talk about their projects and suddenly something’s moved forward, somebody’s cracked a really difficult piece of storytelling and people are putting together their creative teams. Funders, broadcasters, distributors and streaming platforms are recognising that we are one billion people in the world, that Deafness and disability crosses all kinds of identities, and that there’s an audience really worth serving so there’s a lot to be excited about in how we tell our stories, who tells our stories and how we will engage with audiences going forward. Together we’re full of power and potential.