'Freaks' on film

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The Last American Freakshow castTodd Browning's 1932 film Freaks makes a fascinating companion piece to the feature documentary The Last American Freak Show. 

The former is a cult horror film set in the world of circus sideshow performers — people with physical deformities that see them displayed as 'freaks'. The latter, currently screening as part of The Other Film Festival (Australia's only film festival by and about people with disabilities), is a documentary about a modern-day revival of such 'freak shows', and its rambling cross-country tour.

Although Freaks is ostensibly a morality play that aims to return dignity to these social outcasts, it arguably has the reverse effect, by seeking to unsettle the audience with its characters' 'otherness'.

Rather than 'otherness', The Last American Freak Show emphasises humanity. UK filmmaker Richard Butchins is conscious of the implicit irony in the well-intended show. His nagging question throughout is whether it amounts to exploitation, or if it restores dignity to the performers by letting them take ownership of their deformities.

The longest film (85 minutes) on a bill of mostly short films (60 minutes or less), its emphasis on humanity is typical of the festival program. These are not pity pieces, and there's no trite, condescending 'disabled people are people too' moral to be found. They are simply quality films, which shed light on the human experience, as impacted upon by various types of disability.

The Australian film Yolk (director Stephen Lance) is a bittersweet coming-of-age story about a young adolescent girl named Lena — her first acts of teenage rebellion and, more importantly, her budding sexuality. The communication gulf between Lena and her mother is exacerbated by Lena's Down Syndrome, yet it could reflect the experiences of any parent watching their child enter the difficult transition towards adulthood.

Set in the early 1940s, The Hunger House (UK, director Justin Edgar) is a dramatic sucker-punch; a twist on Of Mice and Men, in which a sharp-witted epileptic man and his mentally disabled friend endure a horrific encounter with the Nazis' eugenics program.

Perhaps the most harrowing film on the bill is the drama A Cosy Place for the Fish (Iran, director Nasser Zamiri), in which a short-statured couple prepare for the arrival of their first, long-awaited child. The threats to the couple's dignity are numerous, and ultimately impinge upon their lives via a most horrific turn of events.

Such films use fiction to explore the place of people with a disability in their immediate and the broader community. Many documentaries — The Last American Freak Show among them — seek to share more personal or real-life accounts of people living with a disability, or of those who work with them.

In the US doco Phoenix Dance, director Karina Epperlein trains her camera upon Homer Avila, a professional dancer who lost his right leg at the hip to cancer. The 17-minute film is light on narrative, but lingering shots of Avila's monopedal dancing — showcasing his strength, grace and strength of will — make for powerful viewing.

The Italian Doctor (Denmark, director Esben Hansen) documents the work of Dr Alberto Cairo, who operates a Red Cross clinic that fits prosthetic limbs for mine victims in Afghanistan. The documentary is enlivened by Cairo's dualities. He is a proud man, who at times berates or outright condescends to clinic staff or victims' family members. Yet for 15 years he has been restoring dignity to mine victims. Perhaps the ends justify the means.

In Look At Me (Germany), Niko von Glasgow assembles other thalidomide-affected people to pose nude for a photo exhibition. From this moving premise, the documentary oversteps the line between the personal and the self-indulgent, as Glasgow shifts focus from his models, their fears and life experiences, to a lingering examination of his own.

Canadian Paul Nadler takes a visually stylish, narrative approach to his self-examination in Braindamadj'd... Take 2. The television director beat the odds to return to filmmaking after acquiring a traumatic brain injury, which impaired his mobility, short-term memory and social skills. He packs Braindamadj'd with self-deprecating humour.

'The secret is finally out,' says festival patron Adam Elliot. 'Disability is everywhere and this festival celebrates that fact like no other.' The organisers' mantra is that disabled people are not second rate, so a 'disabled' film festival should not feature second-rate cinema. The Other Film Festival certainly accomplishes that.

The Other Film Festival is on in Melbourne until 7 September. www.otherfilmfestival.com

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and The Big Issue. He is a contributor to the volume American Exorcist: Critical Essays on William Peter Blatty. Email Tim

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, The Other Film Festival, disability, The Last American Freakshow, Monster House, Yolk



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I like Tim. He exposes the underbelly of Australia, and what is the reason?

Theo Dopheide | 04 September 2008  

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