Documentary Review: Shameless: The ART of Disability

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Shameless: The ART of Disability” is a 2007 film you can watch on the site for the National Film Board of Canada. You can view this 70-minute documentary with Closed Captions and/or Audio Description or neither. It’s directed by Bonnie Sherr Klein who joined the disability community after two strokes caused severe disability. She was a filmmaker for years before her strokes, starting when female filmmakers were even more rare than they are today. Active in the women’s rights movements early in her career, she funneled her activist work into bringing media attention to disability rights. At the same time, exposure to disability arts transformed her rehabilitation from being about fixing or healing losses from the strokes to seeing disability as an identity and inspiration for creativity. This is super awesome, y’all. It’s not a call to look only at the silver lining. It’s the realization that through art, storytelling, and dance, we can explore our depths in new, innovative ways by incorporating disability rather than shunning, hiding, shaming, or fighting it.

Klein determined that, just like the need to have women in control of women’s cinema, a documentary about disability culture should be controlled by the disability community. So she made this documentary. It tracks a working group planning pieces for the KickstART 2 Festival of Disability art and culture.

One of the first things you notice about Klein’s film is it’s cross-disability. You’ll also see right away that the subjects appear to be 40s and over, which is cool because unless you’re playing some macho leading man or someone’s annoying parents, you’re rarely going to be shown in any big time movies at 40s and older. Like much publicly available disability rights and disability arts pieces, the cast all appear to be white people who seem to have stable housing and care. Not that we shouldn’t show that. We should. But I do hope to also see more films just like this one done around the art and justice work coming from poor and people of color communities as well. I’m glad this film includes several people in the LGBTQ community.

In an opening scene, the cast are gathered discussing disability in the media. They hit you with whammy after whammy. First it’s playing Disability Stereotypes Bingo (see  samples below) where they mark off all the stereotypes and tropes portrayed in some old films they’re looking at. (Spoiler alert: some people daub nearly every square on their bingo sheets.) Bingo break!

Bingo card filled with microaggressive stereotypes in each box. Center free space reads "YOU'RE SO BRAVE!"

Bingo board with offensively stereotyping language commonly found in journalism on disability topics. Center free space reads "BRAVE & INSPIRATIONAL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"


Moments later, Persimmon Blackbridge and Catherine Frazee agree that in these films, “there’s a lot more horror than sex.” They’re not talking about slasher films versus porn. They are talking about this insidious social trend to paint disabled people as desexualized and that that’s OK. Media prefers to show the supposed horrors of having some painful and pitiful (piss on that!) medical condition rather than allowing disabled people to do and express whatever they want about their lives and social experiences. No matter how many times they assert their lives are not horror-filled, media won’t let it go.

The beginning of this film takes its time, letting us observe the cast watching these crunchy old disability portrayals, discussing them, and then describing how they relate to real life. While a lot of the film is beautifully observational and filled with daily life and storytelling about relationships, work obligations, life changes, and art-making, they’ll come back to echoes of the opening conversation. Toward the end, they watch a sappy video tape of Geoff McMurchy winning a “Courage to Come Back” award. The cast get their say again. David Roche laments with a smile that non-disabled people get inspired by anything disabled people accomplish. In his experience, even taking a dump affords him praise and admiration. And he’s not really exaggerating. Living in a society that simultaneously expects little from you and criticizes you for needing benefits or support will inevitably lead to this kind of demeaning objectification. This is why disabled-made art and storytelling are so exquisitely important.

If I’m sad about anything, it’s that so many sites online describe the cast has having “(dis)abilities.” That’s completely against every minute of this film. These are people who appreciate their disability identity, revel in contributing to disability culture, and openly talk about their disabilities and the stigma they face. Even though people write positive things about the film as a whole, I feel it’s a grave misunderstanding and unnecessary coddling to use “(dis)abilities.” The whole point is that disabled people have lives and make art as actual, full-on disabled people. There’s no need to whisper the “dis” part in “disability.” When the subjects of the film wear their identity as a badge of honor and pride, why do writers still act so frightened to say the word? Not all reviews do this, but I was struck by its very presence at all in light of such a powerfully honest, open film.

Watch this film if you love disability art and culture. Watch this film if you’re not yet familiar with disability art and culture. Then, do a search online of “disability art” or anything like that and get ready for the endless treasure trove of fine, fine works.