Documentary Review: When Billy Broke His Head…and Other Tales of Wonder

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Before the first minute of the film is up, Billy hits my favorite and snark-tastic line ever: “this ain’t exactly your inspirational cripple story.” Not two minutes later, he’s at an ADAPT-organized civil disobedience event in Chicago. You see the gorgeousness of the disability community: different ethnicities, genders, ages, types of disabilities, and anger. They assert their agency as humans, just as Billy admits in a voice over that he was like everyone else before this. He thought disabled people had to be cute and inspirational or tragically sad. Now he’s in the group, and he doesn’t fit these molds.

It’s a classic conundrum for people with acquired disabilities. People often redefine their ideas of disability and disabled people after they become disabled. It’s when a newly brain-injured person feels the sting of isolation and discrimination that they  say, “Hey, disabled people are people. They (or we) are not helpless losers.” Yet, too often, people with traumatic brain injury say this only within the brain injury community or their immediate circles. The emphasis on medical status and rehabilitation often keeps the brain injury community separate from the larger, cross-disability activist movements. Likewise, the misconception that only physical impairments are real has kept us apart. It doesn’t have to be this way. We shouldn’t have to become disabled to decide that disabled folks are worthwhile people. They already are, whether you’re in the club or not. We already are.

When Billy got injured in the 1980s, brain injury peer-support communities didn’t exist how they do now. His first sense of not being alone was in witnessing the unflappable activism of people with other disabilities. Getting the first-hand scoop from people with lifelong impairments about their fights for civil rights and justice opened him to a whole new world. It showed him that disabled people are not passive recipients of praise, benefits, or pity.  Also, these groups have the wisdom and life experience we in the acquired disability camp can use.

More popular brain injury documentaries focus on the personal details that fit neatly into a tragedy-to-triumph narrative. Audiences have been told this is all they should be interested in. When Billy got limited funding to make this documentary, his benefits were cut. He demands that you watch him as he fights to have his food stamps and other benefits returned. He emphasizes the ways in which the social services prevent disabled people from achieving life goals. The more disabled people are prevented from achieving, the more society will continue to see the community as incapable of achieving. And the more protests, campaigns, sit-ins, and crawls people will continue to need to have to assert even the basic humanity that every single disabled person fully holds. He also gives great reflections on how media reflects and shapes our highly limited and limiting viewpoints on the disability community, from paternalizing and condescending telethons to fiction where even a Klingon who becomes paralyzed feels that suicide is his only option.

In 1995, “When Billy Broke His Head…and Other Tales of Wonder” won a Freedom of Expression Award from the Sundance Film Festival. This is a big, fancy, famous festival. Last week, I went to a screening of some 2014 Sundance Film Festival short films and saw only one character who might have a disability. I saw a feature-length fiction film yesterday that contained 30 seconds of the presence of a disabled person, only there to threaten to sue someone else for causing his disabling injury. Never saw or heard from his character again. Even the lawsuit was never mentioned again. From institutionalization to exclusion from the media, disabled people are invisibilized with great care and deliberateness. And although Billy’s movie focuses on white disabled activists and doesn’t feature the many and varied ways in which disabled people of color and even non-disabled Black Panthers and allies have played key roles in disability justice fights, it is still a highly valuable film in showing the real, non-sugar-coated daily lives of disabled activists.

You won’t hear about rehab, a list of impairments, gory details of his wreck, or how he overcame anything at all. It’s his prerogative to make a film that focuses on social injustice. He also chose to show the paradox of people in his family who speak out of both sides of their mouths: they would rather die than live with a disability, and they believe Billy just doesn’t have enough self-determination or else he would have overcome his brain damage by now. Huh. With impossible standards like that, you can see how he was feeling quite alone until he took to the road and the air to meet many wonderful people and gather many tales of wonder.

[This video clip from the Brainline.org YouTube channel has real Closed Captions. Thank you to whoever captioned it.]