I Didn’t See You There

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Reid Davenport is a filmmaker based in Oakland, California. He has made several short films (a few of which can be watched on the library-affiliated streamer Kanopy) about disability; his feature-length debut, I Didn’t See You There, turns the camera around to the world around him. As someone with cerebral palsy who requires a wheelchair to get around, Davenport is unhappily accustomed to being, as he says here, looked at but not seen. Disabled people, Davenport knows all too well, are often objects and seldom subjects (the moment here when he politely but firmly asks wannabe-helpful abled people “Please don’t touch me” will ring a sharp bell for many disabled viewers).

When a circus tent goes up near Davenport’s apartment building — making it well-nigh impossible to avoid the tent in many scenes he films near his home — he folds it neatly into the movie he’s making and the point he’s making with it. Davenport grew up in Bethel, Connecticut, hometown of P.T. Barnum. For a mordant disabled artist like Davenport, this is a happenstance almost too sweet to ignore; he reminds us that Barnum popularized the “freak show,” which pressed the often severely disabled into service to be gawked at in a context of horror. The circus tent is a constant reason for Davenport to muse on his town’s most famous son and how Barnum might have found employment for Davenport.

But largely this is a first-person account, literally, the audience seeing what Davenport sees. The camera, turned away from its wielder, looks at abled people the way they look at disabled people. Sometimes they’re oblivious to Davenport; sometimes they’re solicitous, whether genuinely or merely performatively it’s hard to tell. For a stretch or two, the movie successfully depicts a day in the life of a disabled person as a constant mosquito-hum of microaggressions (sometimes not so micro). People leave power cords dangling across an accessibility ramp, not out of ableist evil but because, unlike disabled people, they don’t have to devote a big chunk of their everyday time to thinking about the realities of disability.

It’s enough to make someone do what Davenport does at one point: get home and loudly drop an F-bomb. But it’s not enough for Davenport to turn his camera into an empathy machine, to put abled viewers in his position of literally being looked down on all the time. He also records the sidewalk under his wheels and the walls that blur past as he rolls, turning them into abstract visuals that go on a bit (impatient viewers may have to recalibrate accordingly). I found those bits sometimes lulling, sometimes bleak, never just empty pictorial poetry. When Davenport goes back home to Bethel to visit his family, the neighborhoods are very nice and full of flowers and spacious back yards. What they aren’t is accessible. It’s easier for someone like Davenport to get around in a big city, which despite a rep for crime also has good public transportation and long stretches of sidewalks, than in the suburbs, which are designed more for walkers and car owners — the affluent and abled.

Davenport has an eye — the movie isn’t visual broccoli, the camera locates beauty and stillness amid the urban bustle and the bumps in the sidewalk. He’s also quick to advocate for himself, again politely but firmly. He’s witty enough to win over abled viewers as well as the perhaps tougher audience of skeptical disabled viewers. Possibly what works most in his favor is that he speaks only for himself; he doesn’t position himself as inspiration or as a voice for every disabled person everywhere. He just shows us what he sees. That makes the film closer to subjective art than to a “documentary.” It uses the leveling power of cinema to put us in Davenport’s chair and let us experience the insults and indifference he faces. That may sound like a bummer, but I’m happy we have the film.

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