I Didn’t See You There: A Disability Film Unlike Any Other
By John Hendrickson, The Atlantic
Growing up, you might have been told not to stare at the guy in the wheelchair. You were probably taught, more or less, that aggressively averting your eyes when passing a stranger with a physical difference is the “right” thing to do. Most of us—whether we realize it or not—keep up this behavior well into adulthood. Reid Davenport, a disabled filmmaker, leans into this social tension in I Didn’t See You There, an experimental movie narrated by him and shot entirely from his perspective.
The film, which won the Directing Award for U.S. Documentary at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, has had a quiet theater run thus far. It will likely find new audiences on PBS, where it airs tomorrow night and will be available to stream; Davenport may also nab an Oscar nomination in the coming weeks. Part of the film’s future success will hinge on viewers’ willingness to audit their own relationship with disability. An uneasy question permeates the movie: Are able-bodied audience members connecting with Davenport’s day-to-day existence, or are they voyeuristically gawking at it?
I Didn’t See You There breaks many conventions of contemporary documentary. There are no reenactments or expert talking heads; there is no narrative arc. By the time the credits roll, Davenport hasn’t even formally identified his own disability, which is cerebral palsy.
What the film offers viewers is something far more kinetic and compelling. The camera is nearly always in motion: Davenport grips it with one hand and drives his power wheelchair around his neighborhood in Oakland, California (and a few other locations), with the other. We get only fleeting glimpses of him—his reflection in a store window, his hand as he pours himself a cocktail. Rather than seeing him, we’re viewing the world as he observes it, which is to say, from just a few feet off the ground. At times, the movie can feel like a video game, or the famous one-shot restaurant scene in Goodfellas. Davenport points his camera down at the sidewalk as he rolls over cracks and bumps, revealing subtle patterns in the built environment that many people might miss. Sometimes his lens is aimed up at the sky or at the faces of passersby on the street. The result is hypnotic, meditative, rhythmic, and occasionally dizzying.
We see him navigating the labyrinthine passageways of a BART station, trying to find an elevator. On a bus ride, we witness the driver’s frustration—and the mixed reactions of his fellow passengers—during a squabble over which direction Davenport should face while on board. We feel the indifference of idling motorists and others blocking wheelchair ramps. Sometimes people ask Davenport if he’s okay or offer him help. Throughout, the film features hardly any music—the primary sounds are of Davenport’s motorized chair clicking and clacking over the pavement as he goes about his day.
One of the film’s more memorable sections comes when Davenport visits his hometown of Bethel, Connecticut—also the birthplace of P. T. Barnum, whose name is synonymous with the circus. Davenport uses this detail in tandem with the looming presence of a giant circus tent erected not far from his Oakland apartment to muse over the way disabled people have long been categorized as “freaks.” At his mom’s home, Davenport briefly stops moving his camera. He lets the audience listen in on poignant conversations he has with his mother and his niece. This stylistic shift is both thematic and practical: In areas of the country that lack continuous sidewalks and/or reliable public transportation, Davenport loses his freedom of movement. When he eventually flies back to California, the audience hears a wistful voicemail from his mom: “My goal in life is to get you back on the East Coast.”
A little over a year ago, Davenport left Oakland and moved to Brooklyn, where I live. I first saw I Didn’t See You There in a tiny New York cinema last fall. Just after Christmas, while walking around the park in my neighborhood, I passed a man in a wheelchair and thought I recognized him. I doubled back and sheepishly asked him if his name was Reid. His face lit up. Davenport and I met up for coffee several days after that—he suggested a place with a to-go window where we could sit outside. (Fewer local businesses are wheelchair accessible than you might imagine.)
He told me that neither of his two closest subway stations has elevators; he usually travels more than half a mile to access a train. I asked Davenport whether he found his new neighbors more—or less—accepting of his disability than his old ones. “I love New York because people are too self-involved to give a shit,” he said with a smirk. As an undergraduate at George Washington University, he’d majored in journalism, and he told me he’d experienced significant ableism in the industry—people not calling him back, difficulty getting hired—before going on to pursue an MFA in documentary film. He told me he’s uninterested in attaching a preachy message to his movie. When I clumsily asked him the meaning behind what I’d intuited to be symbolic directorial choices, he gently waved me off. He told me his moviemaking approach is simple: “Film is photography,” he said. “You want to look at beautiful stuff.”
I asked him why people should watch his movie. “I think if you’re disabled, this film was made for you,” he said. “If you’re not disabled, I think the film is an approximation of my perspective.” He went on: “There’s this whole idea of empathy in documentary film—I think empathy is kind of a unicorn, and kind of irrelevant. You don’t need to be empathetic to be considerate. A human being is a human being.” This brought to mind perhaps my favorite moment in the film, when Davenport and a stranger we can’t see have a brief conversation in a public restroom. The man is friendly, telling Davenport that he’s seen him around the area and admires him for just living his life. Davenport reacts kindly but matter-of-factly: “I mean, everyone has their shit, right?” He then rolls right into the next scene.
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