Disability and the media have a trying relationship to say the very least. Actually, to rephrase, disability and the whole of western culture have a trying relationship.
At Leeds International Film Festival this year there was a screening of Stephen Dwoskin’s acclaimed 1992 essay film Face of Our Fear, tracing the depiction of disability and society’s fear of difference through the ages. Commissioned by Channel 4, it uses examples from cinema to prop up the arguments, which it intersperses with footage of people with disabilities telling stories or reading literature that revolves around the disabled experience.
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Admittedly, in 2022 with inclusion and representation in the air, it feels unidentifiable at first glance. However, the feeling of depression with glimmers of hope does resonate, certainly with my experience as a physically disabled young man. After all, where would any film about disability be without featuring every physically disabled individual’s bane, STEPS!
It isn’t just the material challenges though; it is the general sense of despair and limitation. Something which the disabled community knows too well. What is missing however, is the individual and personal accounts. What you are left with is a rather bleak, generalised view of disability. There wasn’t much insight (if at all) into how disabilities differentiate. For example, someone’s experience with Downs syndrome compared to a wheelchair user’s experience.
As a disabled filmmaker himself, Dwoskin’s attempt to shed light on disability seems rather half baked and doesn’t capture the contrasts of life with a disability. Where’s the humour, for instance, which so many people from the disabled community develop as a coping mechanism? There are some vague attempts, such as a blind man explaining how he once got a job as a guide dog. However, they are few and far between and somehow separate from the world Dwoskin creates. So much so that one does wonder about those dreaded two words “studio interference”. It is easy though to critique things that have come before, from our lofty perch in 2022. It is important to remember as well that Face of Our Fear was made for the small screen, not the big. It got me thinking though: have things changed so dramatically since 1992? There are still steps, sadly.
At the screening, my only option was to sit right at the front, meaning I had to crane my neck back to see the images play across the screen above me. I suppose at least we can get into most cinema and performance venues. Well, new builds. Older buildings have a habit of becoming listed. How convenient. Having said that though, I can think of a handful of new builds where the architects have failed to remember to put in a lift. People still talk down to you, sometimes literally. At least we aren’t thrown straight into special education as soon as we start to differ from the societal norm. Good work, society!
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There is an element of hope though. The number of celebrities with some form of disability has increased. We have films such as John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018), and Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s The Peanut Butter Falcon (2019) with actual disabled actors. Para events have taken a steep rise in popularity. It is still not perfect by any stretch of the imagination but there is hope. Did we always have hope? Maybe that was what was missing from Face of Our Fear: hope. However, we saw footage of people fighting for their rights. Surely, they had hope? My idea of fighting for my rights is writing pretty words from my seat of middle-class privilege. Is that the same thing? Surely that is a world away from placards and protest marches? Is it? Is this my protest? Can one even compare? Anyway, that is something for my therapist.
Face of Our Fear is a time capsule of disability in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Whether that is truthful or not, I don’t know. What I do know is the feeling it leaves you with. Although admittedly lacking the personal touch and the sense of the individual, it attempts to capture the essence of the disability rights movements of the 1980s and early 1990s. Maybe that is all you can ask from a film in the end: a feeling? A window to another time?
Leeds International Film Festival runs until 17th November.