Monday, October 27, 2014

Love and disability at the BFI London Film Festival

Since the birth of cinema over a century ago, romance has been one of the medium's most universal themes. Naming ten movies with a love story is easier than naming a single one where it is absent. We see characters fall in love, make a connection, have sex or have their heart broken on the silver screen left, right and centre. When it comes to disabled characters, this subject matter remains a bit of a taboo to this day. The Sessions and Rust & Bone are notable, but rare exceptions.

It was therefore refreshing to discover this gap is filled by three films, from three different continents, in the programme of this year's edition of the London Film Festival. These films tell the tales of disabled teenagers and their discovery of love for the first time. Crucially, they are coming-of-age stories which simply happen to have a disabled protagonist instead of social dramas about the challenges they encounter. There is nothing "abnormal" in these characters; they feel the same emotions and desires as everyone else.

In Brazil's The Way He Looks, perhaps the strongest of the trio, the blind teenager Leonardo gradually discovers his (homo)sexuality. Simultaneously, he faces problems everyone can relate to: overbearing, protective parents, bullying at school, quarrels with his best friend Giovana, first experiences with alcohol, and so on. The only people who really seem to worry about his blindness are his parents.

Laila, the main character in Margarita, with a Straw from India, is an incredibly strong character who takes her love (and sexual) life in her own hands. She is bound to a wheelchair due cerebral palsy, but that doesn't stop her from leaving her home in order to study in New York, where she falls in love with a blind girl from Pakistan. Director Shonali Bose doesn't shy away from portraying her protagonist's sexuality. Her sister suffers from cerebral palsy and the input of this experience clearly shows on the screen. She very quickly gets beyond the superficiality of Laila's condition and understands her mindset.

Classifying the hero of my third example as disabled may be up for debate. The British feel-good film X+Y revolves around Nathan, a young maths-prodigy with considerable social deficiencies. There are hints, but the film never explicitly states the nature of the boy's condition as autism or Asperger's syndrome. Whether he can be categorized as mentally disabled or not is completely irrelevant anyway, as the film's main concern is to convey his painfully unexpressed emotions. He may show them in a different way, but he has the same feelings and anxieties as any teenager. (Read my full review of X+Y here

All three films suffer from a certain degree of sugar-coating (especially X+Y, which borrows the sports-movie formula), but the honesty and affection always shine through. There are very few laughs at the expense of the disabilities and the directors have no hesitation to portray the characters as flawed, egocentric or sultry on multiple occasions. Many of Laila's decisions are morally questionable and Leonardo's attitude towards his parents isn't the best. The audience is not asked to feel patronizing pity for them, but to genuinely understand and relate to them. It is encouraging to see this attitude in films from all over the world and I hope that The Way He Looks, X+Y and Margarita, with a Straw are the first of many.

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