Cinema without Barriers

By José Alaniz (U of Washington, Seattle)

Foul early winter weather proved only a minor hindrance for the third Cinema without Barriers (Kino bez Bar'erov) [1] Film Festival, devoted to works by and about the disabled, which took place at Moscow's Saliut Cinema 17-20 November 2006. Many of the festival's participants—in wheelchairs or otherwise differently-abled—have had to contend with much worse than sleet and low temperatures. In most cases they have spent a lifetime trying to gain fair access to ramp-less, lift-less buildings; jobs; and the social equality that “normal” Russians take for granted. Worst of all, they have endured life being seen and defined as deviants through the lens of “normality.” In the 21st century their media image remains stubbornly that of the freakish, the pitiable, or the superhuman. A little cold rain was not going to stop them from attending the premiere event of its kind on Russian soil, whose professed mission is to change that long-inadequate representation.

The festival, which screened over 100 films from more than 20 countries, featured an impressive line-up for its jury, including director Iurii Grymov, documentarian Oksana Barkovskaia, David Rabinovich, editor-in-chief of the newspaper World of the Deaf ; and the jury's chairman, director Aleksandr Mitta. Some 1,500 people attended over the four days, [2] according to the event's organizers at Perspektiva, a non-governmental agency devoted to disability rights in Russia. Virtually all the important activists and spokespeople for the Russian disabled community (which Perspektiva estimates at over 11 million)[3] were there. Many of these visitors came in wheelchairs, which at times made navigating the Saliut's smallish lobby a lesson in patience, but the atmosphere was overwhelmingly positive—even life-affirming—for all.

For its closing ceremony, the festival moved to the ET CETERA Theater, where such luminaries as the American and British ambassadors, a Duma deputy and the director of UNICEF for Russia and Belarus presented awards. These included the Grand Prix for Braindamaj'd… Take II (2005), a Canadian film directed by Paul Nudler; Best Long Documentary for the Russian Aleksei Pogrebnoi's Iron Henry (Zheleznyi Genrikh, 2006); and Best Experimental Film to the South African Shelley Berry's Whole: A Trinity of Being (2004). Though screened outside competition, the 2005 American documentary Murderball (dir. Dana Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin) garnered both a Special Jury Prize and an Audience's Favorite award.

In addition to the competition films, Cinema without Barriers held master classes with several filmmakers and producers; organized a children's program; and together with the Museum of Cinema screened several disability-related films, including Charlie Chaplin's City Lights (1931), the 1972 American film David and Lisa (dir. Frank Perry), and the rarely-seen 1964 Mikhail Bogin short film The Couple (Dvoe). Barry Blaustein's The Ringer (USA, 2005), in which Johnny Knoxville tries to fake his way through the Special Olympics, was also screened. Many of these films were shown with DTS equipment (donated by the manufacturer), which provides captioning and a descriptive soundtrack for the blind. This technology remains relatively rare in Russia.

All in all, the triumphant festival served as a snapshot of the brave new world that the country's disabled are striving to build, one positive media representation at a time, as well as a reminder of how far the rest of society is from embracing that optimistic vision.

Disability in Russian Cinema: Some Tropes

Since Perestroika, the disabled have gained a new visibility in Russian visual culture, though they have never been wholly absent from Russian cinema. From the mad visionaries of Evgenii Bauer's works, to the dwarves and legless figures in Eisenstein's, to Pavel Kadochnikov as the amputee World War II hero Aleksei Mares'ev in Aleksandr Stolper's Story of a Real Man (Povest' o nastoiashchem cheloveke, 1948), to Tarkovskii's holy fools and stammerers, disability has often been manifested onscreen as symbol, sacrifice, sentiment, or proof of national authenticity. Post-Soviet cinema, especially of the last decade, has seen an especially rich crop of films that seek (in very different ways) to reinscribe or subvert those old tropes: Aleksandr Sokurov's Mother and Son (Mat' i syn, 1997), Valerii Todorovskii's Land of the Deaf (Strana glukhikh, 1998), Aleksei Balabanov's Of Freaks and Men (Pro urodov i liudei, 1998), Pavel Chukhrai's A Driver for Vera (Voditel' dlia Very, 2004), Roman Balaian's Bright is the Night (Noch' svetla, 2004), Marina Razbezhkina's Harvest Time (Vremia zhatvy, 2004), to name a few.

These works show that disability, along with other forms of physical difference, has become a polysemantic visual signifier open to numerous agendas and motives—some eagerly embraced by the disabled, others rejected. Cinema without Barriers is unique in its claims to provide a venue for works with a celebratory, pro-disability-rights slant, works in which the disabled (or those they entrust) represent themselves for a more holistic, fully “human” vision that transcends stereotype. What the festival's many Russian works actually show, however, is that this very holistic vision is itself both astonishingly heterogeneous and often subject to many of the same conventions through which Russian culture has figured (and marginalized) the disabled body since at least the Middle Ages.

In short, many of the Russian films still follow a familiar pattern: the sentimental, nationalist-tinged hagiography of a heroic sufferer. Two award winners (and big crowd pleasers at the festival) confirm this. Iron Henry depicts the life and history of its colorful subject, Genrikh Ivanovich Sergeev of the village Verkhoshizhem'e. Despite having no lower extremities, Genrikh Ivanovich manages to live a fulfilling and active life: he is married, has children, works as a handyman and jack-of-all-trades, plays musical instruments, writes poetry, and has become an expert on local history, commenting knowledgeably on the village coat of arms. The film is in many ways delightful; the man possesses tremendous charisma and is a good storyteller. He is forthcoming about his tragic history; his eyes well up as he tells of alcoholism, depression, abandonment, despair. For all that, Genrikh Ivanovich is also self-conscious about managing his image; at several points he instructs the camera operator about the best way to film him.

At the same time, however, Iron Henry ultimately—and very much on its sleeve—conveys the message that only a “man of iron” could live through what Genrikh Ivanovich has; as the festival's literature puts it: “Anyone else in his place would have whiled his lonely life away in a wheelchair.” Genrikh Ivanovich is that one in a million (his nickname recalls not only the classic fairy tale but also, perhaps, the machine-like New Soviet Man of the 1920s), a man ennobled by his suffering, placed on earth to “inspire” others à la Pavel Korchagin, the martyr-hero of Nikolai Ostrovskii's 1932-34 novel How the Steel Was Tempered.

But this is a problem for any modern vision of disability rights. The point of equality is not to have a nation of Genrikh Ivanovichs, but to make his sort of misery and triumph an aberration rather than an inspiration; in other words, to build a society of access and full citizenship, where a disabled person is simply a human being with a physical difference—no more, no less. Whether he or she is “outstanding” in some other way is another matter, but in any case not a prerequisite for our attention. The quasi-mystical regard in which figures like Iron Henry are held is a symptom of a culture that still sees the disabled as something other than completely human.[4] An all-or-nothing proposition: either you are made “of iron,” a spiritual paragon, or you are nothing, wasting away in an institution. Western disability rights as developed over the last 30 years is oriented towards carving out a middle-ground between those two extremes, whereas the makers of Iron Henry still seem to embrace the old paradigm.

Another documentary, Tat'iana Malova's Of People (Pro liudei, 2006) tells very much the same story, while highlighting the “romance” angle (it, in fact, received the festival's Best Film about Love award). Made up of new interviews and home-movie footage going back years, the film portrays the life of Liudmila Kiseleva, an artist with muscular dystrophy who can now only move her wrist, and her soulmate/caregiver Nikolai. In images of their home in Borovsk, suffused with soft sunlight and gentle music, the two recount their many personal hardships and charity activities for children. While these scenes, in which we learn that Kiseleva managed to found a new children's home, are quite uplifting, the majority of the film deals with more “spiritual” concerns about sacrifice, the Russian landscape, undying love, faith, and the triumph of the soul over the body.

Once more, something nagged me as I watched Of People. It's not that these are uninteresting subjects—on the contrary, they are quite fascinating, especially when Kiseleva discusses her art and Nikolai recounts his bouts with depression—but the underlying message remains that the entrenched social discrimination of the disabled is inevitable and immutable, so rather than try to change it, one should just rely on “undying love.” But how many Russians with muscular dystrophy actually have a Nikolai? How many of them are, in fact, abandoned by their families, confined to institutions, hospitals and nursing homes, or driven to suicide? How viable is the “undying love” solution for Russia's millions of disabled?[5] The film veers away from such questions.

To greater and lesser degrees, then, and across genres—children's film, public service announcement, documentary, feature, animation—many Russian works at the festival highlighted the sentiment and heroic pathos of disability, and elided its socio-economic basis, thus ruling out a more politically-conscious, activist, or rights-based approach to the problem. Perversely, Iron Henry and Of People are feel-good films about disability in Russia; the gloomy general context of inequality gives these “inspiring” subjects and their bottomless reserves of spiritual fortitude the chance to shine forth all the more brightly. Again, this is not a critique of these people's lives, only of their representation on film and what that representation precludes, evades, and simplifies. [6]

In this light, Murderball 's great success at the festival is easier to see as the Russian response to a similar impulse amongst Americans to favor personal strength over collective action. The documentary, about a quadriplegic rugby team, is a rousing portrait of testosterone-driven young men in wheelchairs rejecting the pity of the able-bodied world and engaging in stereotypical masculine behavior: drinking, pursuing women, trouncing each other on the courts, bad-mouthing the weak (for example, the participants in the Special Olympics). Essentially a jock movie, Murderball does much to quash the “March of Dimes” image of the disabled as physically helpless, only to replace that image with another unexamined stereotype: the bad-boy athlete (a role played to the hilt by team captain Mark Zupan).[7]

The film captivated crowds. One of the rugby players, Keith Cavill, was inundated with applause and flowers at the closing ceremony and the audience remained long after the screening to pepper him with questions.[8] And while a number of people (some in wheelchairs) told me the film should be seen by disabled people all over Russia, its perhaps retrograde treatment of gender went without comment.

Some Worthies

All of the foregoing only deepens my appreciation for the Russian films that broke with the familiar. I am happy to report that several did, offering fresh, unconventional, and vital visions of disability that eschewed sentiment, pity, and all other preconceptions but for one: that the disabled are flawed, complex, human beings. Of the films I saw, the following most deserve mention:

Conclusion

Cinema without Barriers has built a strong profile and it is growing: its incarnations have recently flowered in Samara and the Northern Caucasus, with Perspektiva aiming to launch up to 20 mini-festivals all over the former Soviet Union. Other disability organizations, such as Feniks in Rostov and Desnitsa in Samara, have organized their own film festivals. The Moscow event will next take place in 2008, bigger and with more media coverage than ever.

The festival remains a vital venue for screening these important films and for keeping the issue of disability firmly in the Russian public's consciousness. It is the premiere example of a burgeoning form of social progress, identity politics, and truly groundbreaking cinema. For all that, the festival also serves as a measure of how far contemporary Russia falls short of fulfilling the hopeful visions that fill the theater's screens every two years.

As is often the case with the issue of disability in any culture, these shortcomings have the most common, everyday manifestations. The Saliut is considered one of the most accessible cinemas in the city. All the same, I saw many wheelchair-users confront the fact that the bathrooms are located on the second floor, reachable only by stairs. Those who tried to use the facilities had to make it up there laboriously and slowly through the use of a pulley-like device that could only house one person at a time on the stairs' two landings. Once they reached the facilities, the stalls proved much too narrow and cramped to accommodate a wheelchair readily. While many patrons had made other arrangements, it was a sobering reminder—particularly at an event like this—of the distances Russia has yet to cover.

Similarly, out-of-town guests complained of Moscow's general inaccessibility and paucity of disability-friendly public spaces. Cavill told me he had trouble negotiating the sidewalks and street crossings, which, coupled with the inclement November weather, kept him from sight-seeing much in the city.

"I'm still glad I came, though," he said. “This has been a great trip.”

José Alaniz
University of Washington, Seattle


Notes

1] The organizer, Perspektiva, prefers the English translation “Breaking down Barriers.”

2] Some media reports, in my opinion, mischaracterized the crowd, perhaps owing to the fact that seeing so many disabled people in one place is still quite unusual in Russia. A Novaia Gazeta correspondent wrote:

The festival three times already has failed to go beyond the confines of an event for the “in-crowd” (dlia svoikh). That is, for the disabled themselves. Iura Kuznetsov, a disabled man from St. Petersburg … said the very same thing: “I've been here at the festival morning to night. They call it ‘Cinema without Barriers,' but in fact they'd be more accurate if they called it ‘Cinema behind a Barrier.'”

Mr. Kuznetsov?an important figure in the Russian disability rights movement, who came to the festival to present his film A Weed along the Side of the Road (Podorozhnik, 2006)?spoke in no such terms to me. The audiences were much more mixed than the reporter indicates.

3] As compared to data cited by Iarskaia-Smirnova, a leading Russian disability researcher since just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, who notes that “[D]emographic indicators … [bear] witness to a rise in disability, which itself reflects the worsening of people's health. In 1991, the disabled comprised 61.5 per 10,000 in the population, while in 1992 they were 75.7. On 1 January 1993, the number of people receiving a disability pension was 8.2 million” (114). This in the general context of a declining population owing to the so-called “demographic crisis” of the last four decades.

4] The term that has become associated with the tireless, “inspirational” disabled person, though now grown rather quaint, is “supercrip.” In 1980s America the epithet was attached to such media-candy figures as one-legged marathon runners or people in wheelchairs who climbed mountains. As Joseph Shapiro noted in his landmark disability history, No Pity, such sensationalistic images of the disabled gloss over some important realities:

While prodigious achievement is praiseworthy in anyone, disabled or not, it does not reflect the day-to-day reality of most disabled people, who struggle constantly with smaller challenges, such as finding a bus with a wheelchair lift to go downtown or fighting beliefs that people with disabilities cannot work, be educated, or enjoy life as well as anyone else. (17)

Writing in the disablity journal Ragged Edge, Beth Haller argues:

[T]he power of the Supercrip is a false power. People with disabilities are put on pedestals because of their inspirational quality in doing ordinary things, which is actually a patronizing way to laud people, imbued with charity. Presenting someone as inspirational is just another way of pitying them for the “tragedy of fate.” … Society holds few expectations for people with disabilities—so anything they do becomes “amazing.” Any disabled person who does any basic task of living becomes “inspirational.” And any disabled person who does more than daily living, such as competing as a professional golfer or playing pro baseball with one arm, becomes a Supercrip.

The Russian version of such a phenomenon seems to involve the display of great spiritual reserves and capacity to endure suffering.

5] Not very, as detailed in González-Gallego. The novel is a thinly-veiled account of Gallego's experiences growing up with cerebral palsy in Soviet-era children's homes for the disabled, often in inhumane conditions. Awarded the Russian Booker prize (though not without controversy), the novel does for the disabled in Russia what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago did for political prisoners.

6] By contrast, many of the foreign films at the festival combine the personal and the political in often startling ways. Some resort to black humor, like Steve Caroline's short film Charity (UK, 2006), which riotously delights in tearing down politically-correct shibboleths, and Alan Edirisinghe's documentary Abnormally Funny People (UK, 2006), which tracks the performances of several disabled comics—whose jokes tend to the off-color—at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Interestingly, one long-time Russian advocate for the disabled told me he “didn't understand” Edirisinghe's film and that it made him uncomfortable. Edirisinghe himself told me that he was surprised the film didn't get more laughs from the festival audience. All the same, his work won the jury's Most Uplifting Film award. Other films turn to sexuality, including Berry's award-winning meditation on violence and the eros of a paralyzed body.

Two works forge the link between personal experience and socially-conscious agitprop better than most: the Italian Davide Pernicano's The Jumper's Diary (Il diario dei salti, 2006), which utilizes flashy graphics and fast-motion for a tour of Milan's inaccessible public spaces, and the Chilean David Albala's video-diary PersPecPlejia (2006), about coming to terms with his paraplegia after a car accident. While detailing (to an almost narcissistic degree) the nitty-gritty of his bodily changes—toilet protocol, physical therapy, bed sores, sexual function—Albala, through interviews and statistics, also turns his lens on public attitudes to the disabled, the disabled's attitudes toward each other, etc. Not everything comes up rosy, with love only one of the innumerable factors affecting his quality of life. Through it all, a countdown is running onscreen; when it goes to zero, Albala punctuates the proceedings with a reminder that every 30 minutes or so an accident resulting in severe spinal cord injury takes place in Chile.

7] I cite two voices in the debate over the film's problematic depiction of gender. As Christian Perring notes:

With Murderball, the message that disabled males can be real men too is an important one, but the film does no questioning of this masculinity that the players aim to demonstrate, and the inclusion of the Jackass show on the DVD, as well as the players' commentary, highlights the lack of critical stance towards what gets counted as normal.

Ryan Knighton continues in this vein:

Murderball is fundamentally about men, and rather nasty, wounded ones at that. It might even be about men who aren't in wheelchairs—the ones not watching the movie—and about their nostalgia for a kind of masculinity I can only describe as more or less icky.

To complicate this picture, Cavill told me at the festival that, since the film was made, the team has added a female player.

8] One query about Cavill's private life (perhaps garbled in translation), led him to answer with, “I can probably answer this in two sentences. Yes, it does work. And yes, we do like to go down on women.” While one middle-aged woman scowled, saying, “What do we need this for?” (Zachem eto?), most audience members applauded.

9] For more than just his filmmaking, it seems. Rudak and his company Esmarchfilm, in an open letter to Perspektiva director Denise Roza, objected to Tough Guys being scheduled very late in the festival and to what they called Roza's "personal” intervention to keep the film out of competition. Roza told me via e-mail in March of this year that Esmarchfilm had made no attempt to contact anyone from her organization to discuss the matter before posting the open letter on their website.


Works Cited

Chernova, Natal ' ia. “V kinoteatre s ogranichinnymi vozmozhnostiami.” Novaia Gazeta (4 December 2006).

González-Gallego, Rubén. Beloe na chernom . St. Petersburg: Limbus Press, 2004.

Haller, Beth. “False Positive.” Ragged Edge Online (January/February 2000).

Iarskaia-Smirnova, Elena. Sotsiokul'turnyi analiz netipichnosti . Saratov: Saratov State Polytechnic University, 1997.

Knight, Ryan. “Gimp on Gimp: Some Thoughts on Murderball .” Ryanknight.com.

Perring, Christian. Review of Murderball DVD. Adult and Child (22 August 2006).

Shapiro, Joseph. No Pity . NY: Times Books, 1993.

 

José Alaniz © 2007

Updated: 14 Apr 07