Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 31, 2020

ReelAbilities Film Festival 2020

Filed under: disabled,Film — louisproyect @ 5:36 pm

On Friday March 13, 2020, CounterPunch published my review of the Socially Relevant Film Festival 2020. Before the day was up, I learned that the festival was being postponed because the COVID-19 pandemic had forced the closure of the festival theater venues.

From that day onward, my film reviews have dried up to a trickle. Five very promising films were cancelled, including one on Thomas Piketty’s new book and another on the radium girls who contracted radiation poisoning from painting watch dials. As might be obvious from my interest in such films, I see covering them as a political obligation.

On the same day I learned that the Socially Relevant Film Festival was postponed, I received an invitation to cover the ReelAbilities Film Festival that takes place between March 31 and April 6. The festival will still be taking place but “virtually” as the N.Y. Times noted in a March 25th article:

ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York

This annual festival shows movies that raise awareness of the perspectives of the disabled, like “Code of the Freaks,” a documentary  examining representation in Hollywood movies, and “25 Prospect Street,” about a Ridgefield, Conn., theater that  hires  people with disabilities. The festival will  take place on its original dates, March 31 to April 6, but it has moved online at reelabilities.org. Screenings  can be watched at their scheduled times or for 24 hours afterward, and Q. and A.s will be available as well.

Yesterday, I watched three of the films online and found all to be first-rate. Tickets to the films appear to be entirely voluntary and generally in the interest of raising consciousness about disability rights that are under threat right now. ProPublica just reported that “Advocates for people with intellectual disabilities are concerned that those with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, autism and other such conditions will be denied access to lifesaving medical treatment as the COVID-19 outbreak spreads across the country.”

Code of the Freaks

This is the opening night feature and a great one at that. Like “The Celluloid Closet” that documented the homophobia in Hollywood films, this documentary does the same thing for the objectification of disabled people going back to the silent film era. It was written by Susan Nussbaum who is also interviewed throughout the film. After an automobile accident made her wheelchair-bound, Nussbaum became a disability rights activist. In helping to make this film, she will help anybody who sees it to take a fresh look at any film with a major character who is either blind, deaf, wheelchair-bound, intellectually challenged or deformed. “Code of the Freaks” is a survey of some of the best-known films in this genre, including the Helen Keller biopic “The Miracle Worker”, with mordant and penetrating commentary by disabled people.

Among the most interesting observations made by the interviewees had to do with the differences between how blind people were represented. For blind women who have to deal with a home invasion by a rapist or killer, there’s an obligatory scene of the heroine taking a bath while being stalked by the intruder. Needless to say, the female is played by a beauty queen like Audrey Hepburn but never a real blind woman. Generally, except for Marlee Beth Matlin, the actresses are fully abled. By representing these women as both vulnerable and sexually attractive, it is a way to tantalize the audience through a combination of horror and desire.

On the other hand, blind men are often portrayed as assertive and risk-taking. No better example of that is Al Pacino behind the wheel in “Scent of a Woman” refusing to slow down by his front-seat companion. This is not to speak of all the action films featuring a blind man who has mastered some martial art or swordsmanship. In either case, male or female, there is little interest in making a naturalistic film that depicts disabled people dealing with the same sorts of issues that abled people face.

As a genre, films about the disabled often show women serving disabled men sexually as a kind of charity. In “The Sessions”, Helen Hunt plays a professional sex surrogate helping a man in an iron lung lose his virginity. One of the film’s highly capable commentators wonders why can’t a film be made about a disabled couple getting it on?

One of the more unsettling moments of the film comes with its analysis of “Gattaca”, a film that concludes with its disabled main character committing suicide in order to become “one with the universe”. You get the same sort of send-off in “The Elephant Man”, when after the main character kills himself, you get an “inspiring” panorama shot of distant stars in the heavens as if his soul has joined them.

You get a feel for the snarling intensity of this film from an article Susan Nussbaum wrote for the Huffington Post:

When I became a wheelchair-user in the late ‘70s, all I knew about being disabled I learned from reading books and watching movies, and that scared the shit out of me. Tiny Tim was long-suffering and angelic and was cured at the end. Quasimodo was a monster who loved in vain and was killed at the end, but it was for the best. Lenny was a child who killed anything soft, and George had to shoot him.[A reference to “Of Mice and Men.] It was a mercy killing. Ahab was a bitter amputee and didn’t care how many died in his mad pursuit to avenge himself on a whale. Laura Wingeld [in Tennessee Williams’s “Glass Menagerie”] had a limp so no man would ever love her.

Our Time Machine

With a 100 percent Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and deservedly so, this 2019 documentary is about the efforts of Chinese artist Maleonn to connect with his father, an elderly former director of the Shanghai opera company suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Maleonn works in various media, but his most ambitious medium is making extremely life-like puppets. He decides to create a puppet show depicting the relationship between a father and a son that mirrors his own relationship. In the play, the father is a pilot rather than an opera director. To help his ailing father, the puppet son constructs a time machine that allows the man to go back into the past to regain lost memories. The puppets made for father and son are phenomenal but the most breathtaking realizations are the time-machine and airplane that are a combination of Rube Goldberg and Jean Tinguely.

Toward the end of the film, Maleonn is barely recognized by his father. Each time he shows his newborn granddaughter to the old man, he is asked who she is. When he replies that this is his granddaughter, his father beams in pleasure. Maleonn quips that this is maybe one saving grace of Alzheimer’s that the victim continues to enjoy each moment as if for the first time.

Kinetics – Where Parkinson’s Meets Parkour

Written and directed by Sue Wylie, this narrative film casts her in the leading role as a drama professor learning that she has early onset of Parkinson’s. Wylie’s script is based on her own experience dealing with the trauma of dealing with a loss of balance and motion.

In this two-character film, she meets a student who has his own issues with mind and body. Lukas almost falls on top of her as he has jumped from a wall alongside the sidewalk she is navigating with some difficulty. Lukas suffers from ADHD and used parkour as a way of feeling more control over his life and emotions. Wikipedia describes parkour as a “training discipline using movement that developed from military obstacle course training”. Its practitioners seek to get from one point to another in a complex environment, without specialized gear.

As someone who lost a best friend to Parkinson’s in 2018, Sue Wylie’s travails were familiar to me. Her ability to extract some hope out of her experience is in line with the other two films discussed above. All three are first-rate films and worthy of your support at a time when filmmaking, like most other group experiences, is under siege.


  1. I’ll definitely look for these. I just saw a really good documentary on Netflix, called Tiger King. Or King Tiger. One of those. I had no idea the extent of private zoos in this country, and the people who run them are either insane of criminally insane. It was hard not to think, in almost every scene, that all of these people voted for Trump in the last election. The one ray of hope is that they’re all so stupid that they’ll get themselves arrested or killed eventually, and will be gone.

    Comment by Warren Oates — March 31, 2020 @ 6:43 pm

  2. Greetings Louis, It’s encouraging to hear about the films that help bring awareness to those who are living life through the most challenging of physical circumstances. We have a son who lives in a body with Rubenstien-Taybi Syndrome. Shiloh just turned 33, and lives in a group home in Naples, Fl. He is very fortunate to have the amazing good fortune to live in a town where a unique couple from Cuba decided to begin a business that provides group homes for the community. I have seen so many amazing individuals ,over the 33 years of education this population has provided, that are literally working miracles out of circumstances that most would identify as hopeless. I have always said that humanity should be given a year of teenaged education in a special needs population; because, it would deeply mark everyone’s heart with compassion and empathy. Those 2 qualities aren’t learned; they are implanted; the individuals born with different conditions just need you to get close in proximity. The love inside us, is drawn to your surface and it starts to unconsciously pour out without any prompting. They are here among us to wake us up to our most intelligent approach to living, heart coherence puts the whole human system right; and it gets us out of a head/mind centered experience. Which, is how the system was designed to operate. We have lost our way and fumble blindly because we are living the Tin Woodsman experience. The amazing home Shiloh lives in is run by Libet and Joelvy, and when Libet was little she would go with her mother Maria, to the institution; where Maria served as an RN and that the Cuban health care system had set in place for their unique population. If you were born special, you were taken in and loved for life. When she became of age, Maria, asked Libet what she wanted to study. She told her mom she wanted a degree in special education, and Maria counseled against it; understanding the difficult nature of that experience. Well, thankfully Libet succeedEd, and her and Joelvy, have 4 homes they run. The staff is mostly of Cuban heritage ; and there are trained nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists on staff. They speak the language of their native country and I have enjoyed using a Spanish translation app on my phone to have deep heartfelt communication with each person who assists Shiloh. When they tell you they love him like their own son, it resonates. He goes to their homes on outings and is welcomed as a family member and opened up to their cultural presence in an intimate way. Sadly, they are degreed personnel and respected in Cuba; and in this degraded society they are looked down upon and their degrees “ need not apply”. I’ve seen the foolish who go to visit and who struggle that Shiloh lives in a home where neither they nor he know their language. I remind them that Shiloh barely talks, and he doesn’t need words; because, they just exude love and he knows it. He is experiencing social distancing and the residents all are staying home. He tells me daily over FaceTime; “go back to where you came from virus, leave the earth and never return”. He learned that line from Peter Pan, remember, he used it on Captain Hook when he was expelled from Neverland. As a parent it was hard to let him go and grow; but there are so many angels among us if we just believe. I wrote this all to praise the Cuban system after reading the smart post for today from Manuel Garcia. They birthed a seed that flowered in my life. Then I went back and caught your piece from yesterday about the film festival. So I decided to heap some praise on you for brightening my moments. ✌🏼❤️🙏gary

    Sent from my iPhone


    Comment by utejack — April 1, 2020 @ 2:34 am

  3. Once, in the mid-1980’s while attending an extremely serious international political congress, I briefly attracted the attention of a Latin American comrade so Deep in Thought about the world revolution, he wasn’t saying hello to bit players like me.
    A deluded speaker had seriously suggested that Lenin’s 1915 formula – “turn the imperialist war into a civil war” – could be adapted to the prospect of an imminent 20th Century Nuclear War. Workers’ and Capitalists’ bombs would reduce the globe to smithereens. Out of the Doomsday Ashes, human survivors would create the Communist Garden of Eden, a new Valhalla : https://tomasoflatharta.wordpress.com/2020/04/01/always-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life/

    Comment by tomasoflatharta — April 1, 2020 @ 1:11 pm

  4. To link cinema and the current epidemics, I’d like to suggest the readers on this blog to watch all the 35 episodes of Survivors, a 1975 BBC production about this subject. It’s about the only good cinematographic product out there with a few other exception, the likes of The Andromeda Strain and The Cassandra Crossing. The other day I watched Contagion because it’s ranked well and I was surprised that I could endure watching all of it. What a waste of time that was!
    Mr Proyect, do you know of any good movie about epidemics that are worth watching without wishing to be killed by the very virus depicted in them?

    Comment by Riccardo Pusceddu — April 1, 2020 @ 11:58 pm

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