ReelAbilities Day 1: 'Body and Soul' and 'Defining Beauty'
Body and Soul and Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America both feature admirable subjects who have "overcome obstacles," and also take refreshingly unconventional approaches to these subjects.
"I can't answer the questions people sometimes ask," says Mariana Tembe. When people ask how she gets dressed on her own, or how she takes a bath, she can only say that she does it like they do. She dresses her young son, then sits him on the bed beside her, combs his hair and then combs her own. "For me, it's essential to be pretty," she smiles.
Mariana lives just outside Maputo, Mozambique's capital city, where, she explains, it's not easy getting around in her wheelchair. As she makes the way to the bus stop, the camera in Body and Soul (De Corpo e Alma) hovers just over her shoulder, her pink sweater bright amid the other figures waiting on line. Just as she's described, she needs help to get the chair into the vehicle, and once she gets into town, she has to deal with narrow doorways, curbs, and stairways. "Thank god I'm a pleasant person," she laughs. "It's helpful being pleasant, it's good for me. I use this to win people to help me."
As simple as this self-assessment may sound, Body and Soul also makes clear the many complexities of Mariana's life as a disabled person. In this, it makes a terrific companion piece to Defining Beauty: Ms. Wheelchair America. Both documentaries premiere 8 February at the ReelAbilities Film Festival in New York City, and both feature admirable subjects who have (you hear more than once) "overcome obstacles." Refreshingly, both films also take unconventional approaches to these subjects.
Sometimes this involves imagery that seems wholly familiar, unless you look closely. As much as Body and Soul relies on Mariana and its two other subjects -- Victória Massingue and Vasco Covane -- to tell their own stories, it also provides glimpses of their experiences from other perspectives, or more precisely, from layered perspectives. So, while 22-year-old Mariana smiles repeatedly in her interviews, she sits quietly next to her father as he tells his version of her story: "She is like a plant growing in the yard," he says, "To grow it has to be watered and we are her water, we support her in everything she does." The film doesn't detail her childhood or include background on the rest of her family. Instead, the remarkable contrast between Mariana here and Mariana elsewhere offers just a hint at how many lives she has to lead, how many expectations she must confront and subvert, fulfill and exceed each day.
Body and Soul
Mariana's friends provide some context: one young woman admits she felt anxious about approaching her at first, and felt "ashamed because Mariana is disabled and I'm normal." Mariana smiles again, extrapolating that some people who are anxious around or afraid of disabled people "are more concerned what other people think of them," that is, not disabled individuals, but the "normal" people who would be friends with them, who would push their wheelchairs or help them up stairways. She's found this in herself, she says, that she's found it difficult to meet a disabled person in the street. Now, she makes an effort to start conversations, to share stories.
In part she does this through dance, and Matthieu Bron's film includes a long sequence showing a group of dancers, including Mariana, Victória, and Vasco. Each finds expression in this movement: Vasco has his own shoemaker's stall in the city, which he reaches each day primarily by crawling on his hands and knees (though he must contend with stones and rough ground, he says, he prefers this, "because with the wheelchair, I am delayed"). While he's been harassed and sometimes abused at the market and along his route to work, Vasco believes in his skills and has ambitions: he hopes to have a shoemaking company someday.
As the camera follows Victória -- who's missing an arm -- to her checkup at a clinic, she also describes her experiences with so-called "normal people," who ask how a disabled woman could be pregnant. "Who had the courage to make her pregnant?" she says they wonder, "They never look at the feminine side of disabled women." She feels this identity is "affirmed" by her pregnancy, and she makes it her business to be visible as a disabled person, to go shopping where clerks assume she and her friends have come to beg, and ask them to leave. "Why can't I enter the shop? Am I not a person?" she asks. And so she sees shopping as a sign of her various identities, as a person, a woman, and soon enough, a mother. The film exposes the difficulty of defining "normal" as well as "disabled," for individuals who see themselves in and out of categories.
Erika Bogan is a mother too. And in Defining Beauty, she's competing for 2010's Ms. Wheelchair America. Alexis Ostrander's documentary follows multiple contestants over the five days of the pageant in South Dakota, as they're interviewed and tested by a panel of judges. Their story is complicated as they make friends with one another and also angle for pageant positions. And so, as the film shows how the pageant means to educate and advocate for the more than 54 million Americans living with disabilities, it also occasions anxieties and disagreements -- just like pageants featuring able-bodied contestants.
By revealing the multiple aspects of the pageant, Defining Beauty raises questions about such efforts to define individuals according to someone else's expectations -- whether these parameters have to do with beauty, disability or success. Each of the contestants tells her own story, describes her own struggles and her own beliefs. And as the days count down, it becomes clear in interviews -- if not in the steadily upbeat narration by Katy Sagal -- that some of these stories conflict.
That's not to say that the primary narrative trajectory is not positive, only that this is tempered by glimpses of the daily prejudice and ignorance that shape the able-bodied culture. While the contestants explain their backgrounds (one was born to a mother who took Thalidomide, others were in accidents as teenagers), the film is also attentive to how they're viewed by others. And, as good as intentions may be, some perspectives are plainly limited. One judge extols the contestants' courage, noting, "I have it so easy. These women have overcome so many obstacles, oh! It’s a great day." Another observes, "There are a lot of single moms in this country," with an eye to making the pageant as representative as possible.
He's speaking to the issue posed by 30-year-old Erika, who is unusual in this venue, because she is a single mother of three young daughters. Her spinal cord was injured when she was 21, when her "extremely abusive" boyfriend crashed their car. "Nobody knows exactly what happened in the car," says Erika, who doesn't remember the moments leading up to the accident. "My mom swears up and down that he was hitting me."
While Erika does her best to focus on her "platform" (that is, "Anything is possible"), she struggles as well with contradictory stories -- within her own family, as well as within the coterie of fellow contestants. "Whether I have a boyfriend or not," she asserts, "that’s not anybody's business, that has nothing to do with my abilities." Still, the film makes it your business, including interviews with an ex and her mother too, both expressing concern about her current domestic situation, living with one of her daughters, her boyfriend Chris, and his daughter. Cutting between such interviews and events at the pageant, Defining Beauty maintains a focus on its titular process, how difficult it is to judge and yet, how often and too easily people do it.