Rising up, you may need been informed to not stare on the man within the wheelchair. You had been most likely taught, kind of, that aggressively averting your eyes when passing a stranger with a bodily distinction is the “proper” factor to do. Most of us—whether or not we notice it or not—sustain this habits properly into maturity. Reid Davenport, a disabled filmmaker, leans into this social stress in I Didn’t See You There, an experimental film narrated by him and shot totally from his perspective.
The movie, which gained the Directing Award for U.S. Documentary on the 2022 Sundance Movie Competition, has had a quiet theater run to this point. It would seemingly discover new audiences on PBS, the place it airs tomorrow night time and shall be accessible to stream; Davenport can also nab an Oscar nomination within the coming weeks. A part of the movie’s future success will hinge on viewers’ willingness to audit their very own relationship with incapacity. An uneasy query permeates the film: Are able-bodied viewers members connecting with Davenport’s day-to-day existence, or are they voyeuristically gawking at it?
I Didn’t See You There breaks many conventions of latest documentary. There are not any reenactments or professional speaking heads; there is no such thing as a narrative arc. By the point the credit roll, Davenport hasn’t even formally recognized his personal incapacity, which is cerebral palsy.
What the movie presents viewers is one thing way more kinetic and compelling. The digital camera is almost at all times in movement: Davenport grips it with one hand and drives his energy wheelchair round his neighborhood in Oakland, California (and some different areas), with the opposite. We get solely fleeting glimpses of him—his reflection in a retailer window, his hand as he pours himself a cocktail. Somewhat than seeing him, we’re viewing the world as he observes it, which is to say, from just some ft off the bottom. At occasions, the film can really feel like a online game, or the well-known one-shot restaurant scene in Goodfellas. Davenport factors his digital camera down on the sidewalk as he rolls over cracks and bumps, revealing delicate patterns within the constructed atmosphere that many individuals may miss. Generally his lens is aimed up on the sky or on the faces of passersby on the road. The result’s hypnotic, meditative, rhythmic, and sometimes dizzying.
We see him navigating the labyrinthine passageways of a BART station, looking for an elevator. On a bus experience, we witness the driving force’s frustration—and the blended reactions of his fellow passengers—throughout a squabble over which course Davenport ought to face whereas on board. We really feel the indifference of idling motorists and others blocking wheelchair ramps. Generally individuals ask Davenport if he’s okay or provide him assist. All through, the movie options hardly any music—the first sounds are of Davenport’s motorized chair clicking and clacking over the pavement as he goes about his day.
One of many movie’s extra memorable sections comes when Davenport visits his hometown of Bethel, Connecticut—additionally the birthplace of P. T. Barnum, whose title is synonymous with the circus. Davenport makes use of this element in tandem with the looming presence of an enormous circus tent erected not removed from his Oakland residence to muse over the way in which disabled individuals have lengthy been categorized as “freaks.” At his mother’s dwelling, Davenport briefly stops transferring his digital camera. He lets the viewers pay attention to poignant conversations he has together with his mom and his niece. This stylistic shift is each thematic and sensible: In areas of the nation that lack steady sidewalks and/or dependable public transportation, Davenport loses his freedom of motion. When he finally flies again to California, the viewers hears a wistful voicemail from his mother: “My aim in life is to get you again on the East Coast.”
Somewhat over a yr in the past, Davenport left Oakland and moved to Brooklyn, the place I stay. I first noticed I Didn’t See You There in a tiny New York cinema final fall. Simply after Christmas, whereas strolling across the park in my neighborhood, I handed a person in a wheelchair and thought I acknowledged him. I doubled again and sheepishly requested him if his title was Reid. His face lit up. Davenport and I met up for espresso a number of days after that—he recommended a spot with a to-go window the place we may sit outdoors. (Fewer native companies are wheelchair accessible than you may think.)
He informed me that neither of his two closest subway stations has elevators; he normally travels greater than half a mile to entry a prepare. I requested Davenport whether or not he discovered his new neighbors extra—or much less—accepting of his incapacity than his outdated ones. “I like New York as a result of persons are too self-involved to provide a shit,” he mentioned with a smirk. As an undergraduate at George Washington College, he’d majored in journalism, and he informed me he’d skilled important ableism within the trade—individuals not calling him again, issue getting employed—earlier than occurring to pursue an MFA in documentary movie. He informed me he’s bored with attaching a preachy message to his film. Once I clumsily requested him the which means behind what I’d intuited to be symbolic directorial selections, he gently waved me off. He informed me his moviemaking method is straightforward: “Movie is pictures,” he mentioned. “You need to have a look at stunning stuff.”
I requested him why individuals ought to watch his film. “I believe should you’re disabled, this movie was made for you,” he mentioned. “In case you’re not disabled, I believe the movie is an approximation of my perspective.” He went on: “There’s this complete thought of empathy in documentary movie—I believe empathy is form of a unicorn, and form of irrelevant. You don’t have to be empathetic to be thoughtful. A human being is a human being.” This dropped at thoughts maybe my favourite second within the movie, when Davenport and a stranger we will’t see have a quick dialog in a public restroom. The person is pleasant, telling Davenport that he’s seen him across the space and admires him for simply dwelling his life. Davenport reacts kindly however matter-of-factly: “I imply, everybody has their shit, proper?” He then rolls proper into the following scene.