Rising up, you might need been advised to not stare on the man within the wheelchair. You had been in all probability 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 nicely 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 solely from his perspective.
The movie, which received the Directing Award for U.S. Documentary on the 2022 Sundance Movie Competition, has had a quiet theater run up to now. It is going to probably discover new audiences on PBS, the place it airs tomorrow evening and will probably be out there to stream; Davenport may additionally 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 up to date documentary. There are not any reenactments or skilled 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 gives viewers is one thing much more kinetic and compelling. The digicam 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. Quite than seeing him, we’re viewing the world as he observes it, which is to say, from just some toes off the bottom. At instances, the film can really feel like a online game, or the well-known one-shot restaurant scene in Goodfellas. Davenport factors his digicam down on the sidewalk as he rolls over cracks and bumps, revealing delicate patterns within the constructed atmosphere that many individuals may miss. Typically his lens is aimed up on the sky or on the faces of passersby on the road. The result’s hypnotic, meditative, rhythmic, and infrequently dizzying.
We see him navigating the labyrinthine passageways of a BART station, looking for an elevator. On a bus experience, we witness the motive force’s frustration—and the blended reactions of his fellow passengers—throughout a squabble over which path Davenport ought to face whereas on board. We really feel the indifference of idling motorists and others blocking wheelchair ramps. Typically 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 identify 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 best way disabled individuals have lengthy been categorized as “freaks.” At his mother’s house, Davenport briefly stops transferring his digicam. He lets the viewers eavesdrop on 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 ultimately flies again to California, the viewers hears a wistful voicemail from his mother: “My purpose in life is to get you again on the East Coast.”
Just a little 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 identify was Reid. His face lit up. Davenport and I met up for espresso a number of days after that—he prompt a spot with a to-go window the place we may sit outdoors. (Fewer native companies are wheelchair accessible than you may think.)
He advised me that neither of his two closest subway stations has elevators; he often travels greater than half a mile to entry a practice. 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 present a shit,” he stated with a smirk. As an undergraduate at George Washington College, he’d majored in journalism, and he advised 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 advised me he’s bored with attaching a preachy message to his film. After I clumsily requested him the which means behind what I’d intuited to be symbolic directorial decisions, he gently waved me off. He advised me his moviemaking method is straightforward: “Movie is images,” he stated. “You wish to take a look at lovely stuff.”
I requested him why individuals ought to watch his film. “I feel should you’re disabled, this movie was made for you,” he stated. “In the event you’re not disabled, I feel the movie is an approximation of my perspective.” He went on: “There’s this complete thought of empathy in documentary movie—I feel empathy is type of a unicorn, and type of irrelevant. You don’t should 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 are able to’t see have a short 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 subsequent scene.