Celebrating disability in an art form is not a strange concept to anyone who grew up here with Rod Lathim’s magical Access Theatre productions. This documentary, however, gives Santa Barbarians a glance at the rest of the world, and particularly the East Coast’s cultural hub, witnessing how dramatically social conceptions of handicap and ability can change through the life of activist and performer Simi Linton.
Did you begin this film as a profile or as a film about the politics of disability?
We knew from the beginning that we wanted to make an intimate and compelling portrait of Simi Linton’s life as an activist and a disabled woman — a true insider’s view of the experience of disability in America. As the film evolved, that portrait became the point of entry into the larger political narrative: the emergence of the disability rights and disability arts movements over the last 40 years. During production we had many heated discussions about the degree to which we would focus on Simi’s life. “I don’t want this to be a biopic!!” Simi exclaimed in one of those moments. Christian countered: “Don’t think of this as a biopic, it is the biography of an idea! The idea of disability.” That settled it. The principle that drives [the film] is that disabled people’s rights and freedoms can no longer be denied. Our motto: “Equality, justice, and a place on the dance floor!”
Did your minds change about anything during the filmmaking? Were you surprised?
Our commitments to and beliefs about disability politics spurred us to make the film. We based it, in part, on Simi’s memoir, My Body Politic. Though we originally thought we would adapt the book and make a narrative feature, it soon became apparent that the real people in Simi’s world offered richer and more interesting possibilities. Thus, the documentary was born.
Please tell us about the acrobatic wheelchair dancer who seemed to steal the show?
Alice Sheppard, a dancer and wheelchair user, is a central figure. She is an amazingly talented, forceful dancer, whether on stage or at a party. A story she recounts in the film is her encounter with disabled dancer, Homer Avila. After sharing a late-evening drink in a bar, as he got up to leave, he suddenly looked intently at Alice and said: “I dare you to take a dance class.” A few months later she did, and shortly gave up her position as a professor of medieval studies. She has been dancing ever since. Alice says about her work: “I dance in pieces that explicitly question what we think we know about disability, dance, and the body.”
How has the film done? Is it in other fests or theaters?
The film is making its world premiere at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, with others soon to follow. The response in two test screenings has been incredibly good. We don’t have distribution yet and hope that this will change soon. We are over the moon.
Check the latest schedule here.