Friday, February 22, 2008

My Uncle Joe


More than twenty years ago I began a film project on my uncle. I thought he was cool and interesting. He had lived over half his life in an institution with a label of what then was called "mental retardation." But he got out of the institution – Fernald State School – and found his rightful place in a community south of Boston: Quincy, Massachusetts.

He had challenges, but faced them with a free and indomitable spirit. The film I made about Joe, simply titled, My Uncle Joe, was released in 1991.

We lost Joe in February, 2005 when he was struck and killed by a small truck while he was crossing a street. He was heading home after dinner at one of his favorite restaurants.

I've been working with Joe's brothers to create a site dedicated to Joe's independence. There will be this show site and a related web site, All will present stories of people who, like Joe, tell us something about how our world works and who we are. It will be about struggles and triumphs. It will be for people labeled with disabilities and poeple who help them, as well as people who just want to know more about what makes us all tick.

So here we go. It starts today.

Bill Rogers

February 21, 2008

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Picture This Film Festival

Was pleased to accept an award from the Picture This Film Festival for FRONT WARDS, BACK WARDS in Calgary this past Saturday. I only wish I could have made it there in person. It seems like a grass roots fest, for people with disabilities, celebrating the individual with a people-first perspective. And an honor to be recognized by them.

The challenge in creating work that is honest about disability is that you have to form a complete, often complex relationship with your subject. We can certainly say that disability is only a definition – a state of mind that can have little to do with the capabilities of a person – but then there's the reality of the personal experience. With my Uncle Joe, who was labeled "mildly mentally retarded" I often sensed frustration at limitations, real and projected. An ongoing issue was not being able to drive a car. These limitations are real. A driver's license and car are freedom in America.

We can and do create false divisions between "us" and "them." Having spent a long time making and learning about people with disabilities and the place where such people were defined, I've found the dividing line between ability and disability to be malleable, personal and cultural.

An example of this idea is contained in the title of our film, and the title I wanted to give it. We ultimately went with the title Front Wards, Back Wards because it refers to the varying shades of disability (or not) that were lumped together at the institution. The title I wanted was Idiots, Simpletons & Fools. It was vetoed by many people who were concerned of the obvious negative connotations for people so labeled. I liked it precisely because it points to negative labeling, and implicates those creating the labels. But it is not for me to judge the effect of negative labeling, so I would have had to overcome the objections to try to command more attention. Many other filmmakers would have done so, and either I'm a wimp or I listened.

And that points to the two realities that intersect with disability – my perspective as maker and your perspective as viewer. Both relate to the important reality of the subject. It's about how we all meet in images and experiences – as all play out in images and sounds. Is the experience true? Is it real? Is it significant? Glad to get a recognition from the Picture This folks that they thought yes.

Here's the letter I sent in acceptance of the award:

I am so pleased to accept your award for Front Wards, Back Wards. Making this film has been long and often hard. Hard waiting for funds, hard waiting for doors of access to open, hard to go inside a place where human beings never should have been. But my personal experience in making it was easy in comparison to those who lived, forgotten, behind Fernald’s walls and places like it.

In my early days researching this project I found a note – in crayon, scrawled – it said “I want to go home.” Who was that person? What were the conditions of his or her life?

When I got tired because of the hard work, discouraged because the work is long, I remembered that note and the stories of Vic and Joe and Patti, and remembered that they were the ones who had it hard. And from that perspective my job was and is really easy: listen, look and tell others.

This project is about the first institution for people defined as mentally and developmentally disabled. It’s about how institutional walls acted to contain people. And to contain we have to define – what’s in and what’s out. Working on this project, working on a project about how containers define those we contain showed me that it’s not only the disability that presents the problem but our, to borrow your festival’s title, our picture of it, our notion of disability and the conditions of the humans whose lives with disability we see and define.

But I also wanted my audience to spend time in a place where we cannot simply explain away disability. It is not the case that we can say that disability is MERELY a state of mind. When someone needs to be fed, moved, even in a sense spoken for, as is the case of one of our films stars, Patti Hillis, there is a disability, a particular experience that requires an adjustment from “normal” experience. Patti confronts us with a way of relating with the world that is markedly different from most others. But in showing her distinct experience, we can see that familiarity. She wants to go out into the air, and feel a spring breeze on her cheeks.

So thank you for your recognition of stories like Patti’s and the complex web that it weaves with others. It feels like a recognition of the spirit of that person who said, so we could hear it, years later, but loud and clear, “I want to go home.” I imagine that person looking out one of Fernald windows, wondering and hoping we can hear. Your festival now has heard that voice as you’ve welcomed many others. Thank you.

-Bill Rogers
Producer/ Director Front Wards, Back Ward