The film CODE OF FREAKS screened at this year’s Reel Abilities Film Festival of Los Angeles. Yes, the title uses the word “FREAKS” to refer to those with disabilities even though it’s a documentary about Hollywood’s history of representing people with disabilities in film. It’s a tongue and cheek call back to the 1932 film FREAKS. I believe the documentary asks: Why not immediately embrace the word and get it out of the way? A person interviewed said near the beginning of the film. This let the film boldly dive in and challenge filmmakers to raise the standards of storytelling when including people with disabilities instead of the tropes it usually uses.
The independent documentary film panel includes several hosts with different types of disabilities. They all expressed their wishes and desires on how best to portray people like them. They all agreed that even though Hollywood has made great strides towards inclusions, there are still many easy tropes to avoid. When they mean disabilities, mean those disabilities that are seen and unseen. Disabilities encompasses a wide variety of people: blind, deaf, cerebral palsy, wheelchair enabled, Autism, Down Syndrome, mental illness, disfigurement, and little people just to name a few.
FREAKS, as one host points out, is one of Hollywood’s oldest films yet it has the largest cast of people with disabilities. The movie FREAKS surrounds the 'normal' person with a myriad of people with different disabilities to make her feel like the outcast. Early in Hollywood, many movies portrayed people with disabilities as a sideshow circus. The audience could then stare at them out of curiosity or horror instead of like human beings. Great examples of this are THE HUNCH BACK OF NOTRE DAME or THE ELEPHANT MAN.
SOMETHING ABOUT MARY
One host surprisingly advocates for more comedy, not less. He appreciates comedy instead of feel-good movies because it seems more authentic to him. He enjoyed the Farrelly Brothers’ films’ fearlessness to include many people with disabilities in many humorous ways. Part of being a human being is being able to laugh at oneself. He refers to the scene of SOMETHING ABOUT MARY where the quadriplegic drops his keys and comedically attempts to pick them up himself to learn to be self-sufficient. The interviewee professes that if you ever watch him drop his own keys on the floor, you would think his attempts to pick it up is a comedy as well. In another panel at the Reel Abilities Film Festival of Los Angeles, one host delineated the comedic bounds in his terms. There is room for comedy for people with disabilities. It’s when you’re partaking in a joke as opposed to being the butt of the joke. He also quipped that little people do not have magical powers or a pot of gold.
One wish was to watch two people with disabilities make love. The reason is that the usual cliche is two persons, one with a disability and one without. There are a few reasons this occurs. They are monetarily compensated, performing it out of curiosity or even worse is doing it out of pity. The film THE SESSIONS (by Ben Lewin) is an uncomfortable yet celebratory journey about a man living in an iron lung, expressing his sexuality for the first time. We are propelled into a world that we have never experienced or imagined. It's about a quadriplegic who hires a sex therapist to explore his sexuality as well as lose his virginity. They never fall in love but the lead character is somehow changed.
Another movie that refers to love making is CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, where a regular man and a deaf woman make love. In Shoshannah Stern’s TV Show, THIS CLOSE, TWO deaf people write and star in the show. This is the first time where there are two dear persons as the lead in a TV Show as well as in a movie.
Another trope is where the person with disabilities is introduced into a family or community. S/he changes everyone’s life, yet remains unchanged and institutionalized. Their wants and desires are over simplified and saying that returning to the institution is what is best for them. Everyone “agrees” for it’s believed that the person with a disability doesn’t have the free will to live their best life outside of it. You could even say that this is Hollywood’s way of affirming those either not wanting to take care or unable to take care of people with disabilities. An example of this is RAIN MAN.
As care providers for people with special needs in a more homelike setting, we know it’s not always possible for people to take care of their relatives with special needs. But still we also don’t think that locking people away in institutions is good. That’s why we support the board and care model like the ones we work for, because it gives the people with special needs a homelike setting to feel more a part of the community. In fact, some guys in our care really enjoyed seeing films at the Reel Abilities Film Festival for the last two years. Let’s get back to CODE OF FREAKS.
THE PERFECT MOVIE
These are high standards in which to create stories. How many perfect movies has Hollywood made humanizing people with autism or another form of disability? None, the panel of hosts conclude.
In some ways it challenges me – Richard- as a filmmaker to write and produce better stories. MY APOCALYPTIC THANKSGIVING is inspired by my life along with the many of special needs adults that I take care of. I am the characters of Frank and Kim. Marcus is the embodiment of several of the clients’ stories. What I have personally observed is that their primal instinct is to connect with their family. This desire is universal especially if we are not fully accepted by our family or community. Many of these clients were abandoned early in life and institutionalized. They never had a family. We are the closest ‘family’ they will ever have is their group home and board and care “family.”
SELF DETERMINATION and ZOMBIES
are the strongest aspect that sets MY APOCALYPTIC THANKSGIVING apart from many tropes of people with autism and special needs. The most unique aspect is that it strives for self-determination for people with special needs and what can go wrong with this and what can go right. Self-determination is the idea that it’s a God given right sprung from the belief like the right to pursuit of happiness endowed by our creator. They may not always make the wisest choices, but they are allowed to make choices for themselves. As pointed out in our film, they have the right to take medication or not. They also have the right to wear what they want, hang out with whomever they choose to and even not have a lobotomy. I know that the lobotomy part sounds funny except some people with special needs used to not have a choice. There are also specific cases of self-harm and illegal activities where a court and panel can partake in those choices. It’s that we can’t intervene until they prove to be a danger to themselves or others.
As a Filipino writer, I understand the story telling challenges. Let’s strive better to avoid easy tropes or cliches and portray people more depth and humanize these characters with disabilities. For me, this film was a love letter to the special needs and their families of the caregiver community. People are meant to see that there are more to people with special needs and/or disabilities beyond the overused tropes discussed in the CODE OF FREAKS.