The narrative is yours to change

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Justin Edgar, the writer, director, producer and founder of 104 Films, explains how to find your voice as a disabled filmmaker

10 June 2020

There is much debate currently about how to get more disabled people into the film industry. The more pertinent question might be: who are the disabled filmmakers and why does it seem so hard to find them? 

We have in this country, a long history of making films about disabled people, but most of these films have been made by people who are not disabled and not particularly engaged with progressive thinking and current debates around disability.

Prior to World War One, there was a mistrust and cynicism of disabled people, who were seen as layabouts and scroungers. Disabled flower sellers proliferated on the streets of London and were regarded as a nuisance. Attitudes began to change when soldiers arrived home into their communities with disabling injuries. Following the new horrors of World War Two, the prevailing attitude became one of paternal liberalism, a concern for the disabled was reflected in cinema of the time. Films such as Michael, A Mongol Boy (1961) shone a light of social concern on the disabled. Mandy (1952), about a deaf girl and Bryan Forbes’ The Raging Moon (1971) about a couple who fall in love in a home for wheelchair users, are examples of how disability was presented to audiences as tragic. 

This narrative of tragedy is the predominant archetype that we still see in films today, such as The Theory of Everything (2014). These films depict disability as the antagonist, and are about the human spirit conquering adversity in the form of disability. Such narratives are damaging because disability is shown as something to be feared and conquered. 

But what if disabled people are happy being disabled? The able-bodied never think of things that way, but life for disabled people is often a happy reality. Subjectivity plays a huge part in your world view.

The theory of the social model of disability emerged in the 1990s, which espoused a different way of looking at disability. Rather than the disability being regarded as a medical issue, it was argued that disabled people were disabled by a society created by the able bodied. For example, if every building had ramps and society was genuinely equal, then wheelchair users would no longer be disabled. This was a revolutionary concept and a different way of looking at disability.

Recently, filmmakers have emerged who have embraced the social model and are challenging the tragedy narrative by looking at stories from a disabled, rather than able-bodied perspective. A watershed moment was our Dis Life series of films in 2004; five films made by young disabled filmmakers from various groups such as a special school, a hospice and a head injury support group. We gave the filmmakers their own voice and facilitated the making of their films. The narratives to emerge were very different from those made by able-bodied filmmakers. For example, all of the films were comedies. Special People tells the story of an able-bodied filmmaker who attempts to make a “tragedy narrative” film about the struggle of disabled people with a group of young filmmakers. They rebel and make the film they want to make instead. Since Dis Life, the best films that we (at 104 Films) have made about disability have been made by disabled filmmakers themselves.

In order to find your voice as a disabled filmmaker, you first of all have to identify as disabled. But who is disabled? 21% of the population identify as disabled and of that 21%, less than 30% are either culturally (D)eaf, visually impaired or have mobility issues (e.g. wheelchair users). So who are the other 70%? The simple answer is they could well be you. One of the issues with the prevailing depiction of disability is the notion that all disabilities are visible and therefore obviously medical. This unwritten assertion helps the able-bodied feel comfortable with the notion of disability as ‘the Other’. Yet the largest and fastest-growing group of the 70% of people with non-visible disabilities are those with mental health issues and the hard of hearing (small “d” people, who are not culturally deaf).

So what is disability cinema? Is there such a thing as a cohesive school of filmmaking that connects someone with mental health issues with a wheelchair user? There is a diversity within disability, so it’s a very hard thing to pin down, yet there is a commonality in the work of disabled filmmakers – they are the outsiders, usually challenging the establishment. The punk and sometimes DIY early film work of Derek Jarman relates to the homemade ethos of community film and how filmmakers subvert the tragedy narrative in films such as Special People and Unarmed but Dangerous (2009). There is a survivalist correlation between Katherine Araniello’s angry right to live comedy Follow Me on My Journey to Die (2009) and Ted Evans’ The End (2011) which argues against the medical model wiping out deaf culture. 

What is common is that disabled filmmakers are the political outsiders. We see this from Jarman to Ian Dury to Ted Evans – artists with difficult and challenging questions to ask of society. In an era when society, rather than medicine may hold the answers to the way forward in a Covid-19 world, disabled filmmakers are more valuable than ever. 

Justin Edgar is the founder and creative director of 104 Films. Justin's latest project as writer and producer is the NETWORK funded short film, Verisimilitude, which can be watched as part of The Uncertain Kingdom here.    

You can follow Justin's work here.