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New documentary tackles disability cliches in Hollywood
by Melissa Wasserman
2016-12-07

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Silence is not an option when it comes to disability exploitation in Hollywood films and the new documentary Code of the Freaks sets out to expose this as it begins its Kickstarter campaign.

Code of the Freaks will be a 90-minute documentary featuring local, national, and internationally known artists, activists and scholars with disabilities who critique Hollywood's ( mis )representations of disability, while addressing how these clichés and portrayals shape the real lives of both disabled and non-disabled people.

Tod Browning's 1932 cult classic Freaks inspired the documentary's title with the quote "Their code is a law unto themselves. Offend one, and you offend them all."

Code of the Freaks is driven by artists, scholars and activists—all of which have disabilities or are allies. This creative team includes Chicago-based filmmaker Salome Chasnoff; novelist Susan Nussbaum; University of Illinois at Chicago ( UIC ) faculty lecturer Aly Patsavas; UIC Director of the Program on Disability Art, Culture and Humanities Carrie Sandahl; and School of the Art Institute editor Jerzy Rose.

"It's really important to all of us and the community that we're making this film with that it's disabled people making the film about disability," said Patsavas, who lives in chronic pain. "It is a combination of these mash-ups of Hollywood's clips and interviews and conversations with disabled artists, activists, performers and scholars, focusing on their experience and analysis of these films, alongside those clips."

The project is a work in progress, so the group has recently announced its Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to complete the project. The effort is crowdfunding to raise $30,000 and runs through Dec. 18.

"We need a film for disability that can kind of do the historical overview of representations of disability in film and actually show that disability was sort of central to early film," said Patsavas, mentioning Thomas Edison's film "The Fake Beggar" is thought to be one of the first films, if not, the first film to address disabilities. "We wanted a vehicle to tell that story, but we also wanted the community voice and we wanted to bring disabled people together to have that. We felt like it was really important in this film we had an opportunity to raise the voices of disabled people and that's actually what the film is about. It's about giving the microphone to disabled people to talk about film, but in doing that we quickly realized that people were talking about their lives."

Patsavas said the more conversations the team had with the community about the topic, the more they realized those conversations are the film.

Through the interviews and clips, various topics are explored, including, disabilities with the intersections of race, class, age, gender, and sexuality in order to expose pernicious myths about disability, from the notion that heterosexual romance has curing powers to the belief that living with disability is worse than death.

Code of the Freaks seeks to reveal Hollywood's 116-year history of exploiting disability stereotypes through beloved characters and storylines, while decoding some statistics including: 20 percent of U.S. residents between 5 and 64 years-old are disabled, yet fewer than 2 percent of film and television characters are disabled; and only .05 percent of disabled characters' lines are spoken by disabled actors.

"There's something really important about the conversation that happens, but also the repetition and showing the repetition of these stories by having these clips compiled together," said Patsavas.

In terms of sexuality, Patsavas said, the role of heterosexuality in these narratives creates a big silence around disability and sexuality. The queer, disabled folks the creative team talks to ( including herself ), Patsavas said, want to actually see experiences represented in different ways within broader culture, which includes film.

"I think that the short version is that when you don't have your experiences represented on screen, when it's coupled with a total lack of access to information about disabled people's sexuality, then that's sad and that's a problem for a lot of people and I think that's a conversation we want to have," said Patsavas, who identifies as a queer woman. "What does it mean for queer disabled folks to not see their likenesses on screen? To have representations on screen that are so tied to this rehabilitative heterosexual narrative, that's part of the problem. We have no easy solutions, but that's why we're having a conversation with so many people."

Patsavas said disability also poses this giant question for people that don't live with disability, whether it is a question of "how do they live like that?" to "how do they have sex?" to "how do you get dressed in the morning?" In a narrative, she explained, there is this big question mark that has to get resolved somehow in order to answer the question for the viewers or readers. This wrap-up is usually done by curing, killing or institutionalizing those with disabilities.

"We can learn a lot from the ways that stories sort of force these narrative endings," said Patsavas. "We're not just talking about the overarching narratives, but through our film, actually, in some ways [we're] trying to offer an alternative to the representations we're critiquing by having voices of people who represent the kind of diversity heterogeneity of the community."

For more information, visit CodeOfTheFreaks.com .

To contribute to the Kickstarter campaign, visit: www.kickstarter.com/projects/codeofthefreaks/code-of-the-freaks-a-documentary-film/ .


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