Filmmaker Reid Davenport on using filmmaking to claim disability as a political identity

Filmmaker Reid Davenport on using filmmaking to claim disability as a political identity
[Image:  An outside headshot of Reid, a white man with curly hair. He stands outside in a yellow button-up  shirt. The sun slightly flares into the shade of surrounding green trees.]

Reid Davenport spoke with GOOD DOCS intern Kayla Sloan about his Sundance Award-Winning documentary I DIDN'T SEE YOU THERE, and using filmmaking to claim disability as a political identity.

How do you balance your passion to raise awareness for people with disabilities with your frustration that this is often meant that you have to put your own story and body in your work? 

Yeah it's a great question. I think I try to be calculative and vulnerable in that I don’t want to just reveal stuff about my life just to reveal it. I try to do so with a purpose and I think that also I’m a character in all of my personal films. It is not really exactly me so I think that is also how I kind of protect myself, to keep in mind that I am not necessarily displaying all of what I am, it is a character. As a character, I try to assemble a political argument or a political statement that can hopefully speak to wider issues of inequity. 

Did you have any boundaries regarding content that you thought was personal to include in the film or was it just a matter of including what you thought would create the most compelling documentary? 

I totally was conscious of what I wanted to film vs. what I didn’t want to film and I knew people would be seeing this, well at least I hoped people would be seeing this, so that was always in the front of my mind when I was filming and when we were editing.

What media have you seen about disability, either positive or negative, that inspired you to become a filmmaker?

Well, I was inspired to become a filmmaker because I was supposed to study abroad in Italy as an undergraduate student, and I couldn't go because of inaccessibility, so I made a movie about it. I think I am fueled by, I mean for lack of a better word, bad representation of disability. Good representation is just not there. What I try to do is politicize disability. Disability is seen as a medical diagnosis, I see it as a political identity and this is not original. I subscribe to what people have put forth in arguing that disability is a political identity. I think my work tries to illustrate how people with disabilities constitute a marginalized minority and how they need more access to pretty much all aspects of society.

Has anything surprised you about the reaction to I Didn't See You There

Yeah, I mean a lot of things have surprised me. I’ve been surprised at how many people get it, I guess. I was kind of wondering if there were going to be people who were like, “what is this, I don’t get it?”, but I haven’t seen many of those. I mean that’s been really rewarding because we were making a non-traditional film and often those are hit or miss. It’s really gratifying to hear people comment on it and hear people have different interpretations or different parts that resonated with them. 

Did you know from the beginning of the film that you did not want to show your body and what was that decision making process like? 

I think it became clear I wanted to shoot this from my wheelchair and then it became purposeful with the title, I Didn’t See You There, the theme of vision and being seen and being invisible. It was definitely at first not a decision; just the way it was and I think it gradually turned into more and more intentional.

Have you seen any evolution in access and representation for disabled filmmakers since you first started making films in the industry?

Yes. I think that has a lot to do with disabled filmmakers in the genre like Jason DaSilva and Jim Lebrecht and many others, making films about disability. When I started the industry wasn’t really identifying disabled people as a marginalized identity and now pretty much every fundraising application that's included in the questionnaire, “are you disabled?”. There has been a lot of talk about people making films from inside their own community as I think there is a stronger desire for disabled people to make films about disability. 

How much of your intention in making this documentary was to educate non-disabled people versus making a film for people with disabilities?

I would say I really was trying to make this film for people with disabilities. Yeah I don’t think I was trying to educate. I was trying to really get an approximate perspective and I was hoping it resonated with disabled people and I hope it resonated with non-disabled people. I guess I’m kind of bored of trying to raise awareness and do like a PSA type documentary. I’m more drawn to the films that hopefully are a little more complicated and nuanced. 

Is there anything else you want viewers of your film to know or do with your film, and just kind of what's next for you. 

Sure, I think this film is up to the viewers to interpret. We tried very hard to be non-prescriptive in order for different people to grab onto different parts and I just hope that people continue to read the film in different ways.

Bring I DIDN'T SEE YOU THERE to your campus & community!