This documentary leaves its most affecting moment until last; a wheelchair-bound, ventilator-dependent Christopher Reeve addressing the Academy Award audience in 1996. In less than two decades, Reeve went from being the all-invincible Superman to being left quadriplegic by a horse riding accident. The overwhelming feeling in this scene is not of discomfort or pity, but unconditional respect.
Jenni Gold’s documentary CinemAbility: The Art of Inclusion charts the history of disabled characters on screen in a roughly chronological manner. A mixture of interviews, television clips and cinema montages are sewn together to create an absorbing exploration of such a significant issue in contemporary cinema. CinemAbility discusses the at best questionable, and at worst offensively misleading, appearances of disability in the media. Reeve however is just one example of the generally positive approach Gold takes in her investigation, regularly overcoming negatives with positives.
Some high-profile examples, like Rain Man (1988), are completely omitted. Other prominent examples like The Elephant Man (1980) feature very briefly. Instead, Gold drives an emic discussion based on what her interviewees choose to talk about. The variety of film and television personalities Gold gathers - able bodied and disabled, world famous and those who beaver away behind the scenes - means an incredible range of topics are covered. Many films and television series are brought up that are either largely unknown or have not been thought about in this context much before.
The discussion is fuelled by a central concern with disability, but also feeds into other areas such as gender, sexuality and race. What you get therefore is less a history of disability in cinema than a history of cinema itself. The representation of disability has historically been poor, something that this documentary traces throughout history while giving the distinct impression that things have improved, at least to a certain extent.
Most gripping is a section discussing the portrayal of disabled characters by able-bodied actors. The editing swaps quickly between several different points of view and you become immersed in a significant and interesting discussion that Gold does not proclaim to solve, but merely to present honestly. While it does seem to implicitly come down on one side over the other, this is not a definitive stance, and pure fascination results from seeing such a debate featuring those most deeply affected by it.
Perhaps sometimes the flow of the documentary seems interrupted, and some of what is said can be hard to agree with. CinemAbility however was not filmed with the intention of appeasement. Instead, disability in cinema is captured in an immersive and honest documentary that does not suffer from a surplus of negativity. Endlessly intriguing and thought provoking, Gold has crafted something wonderful.
CINEMABILITY: THE ART OF INCLUSION / CERT: UNRATED / DIRECTOR AND WRITER: JENNI GOLD / STARRING: BEN AFFLECK, GEENA DAVIS, BRYAN CRANSTON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW