Between this year’s Sundance Film Festival and various Oscar-nominated movies like The Sea Inside and Million Dollar Baby, there is a preponderance of films with characters grappling with disabilities that affect movement, ranging from being wheelchair-bound to being virtually immobile. At Sundance, director Damien O’Donnell (East Is East) premiered Rory O’Shea Was Here for North American audiences, and this film not only didn’t pull punches but found the humor and hope in living with muscular dystrophy and cerebal palsy.
The L Magazine: There are all these films with wheelchair-bound paraplegics or quadriplegics; even a documentary at Sundance, Murderball, about a paraplegic sport.
Damien O’Donnell: I’ve seen Aaltra at Sundance. Oh my god that was madness. It’s about two rivals on a farm that get injured in a farm machinery accident, and they decide to make their way in wheelchairs all the way to Finland to claim their compensation for their company; it was made by an acolyte of Aki Kurismaki.
The L: Did you see The Sea Inside?
DO: Yes, I know [its star] Javier [Bardem] very well, actually. We were supposed to be working on a film together that didn’t happen. And the next films that we booked both involved people with disabilities.
The L: You’ve made a distinction between those in wheelchairs through injury versus through conditions at birth.
DO: People who have it as an injury appreciate what they have lost. The character Michael has lived this sheltered life and doesn’t know what opportunities are out there for him, he hasn’t discovered that. Duchene muscular dystrophy is a degenerating condition, but it starts quite early. So you’re already suffering from it, and by the time you’re ten you’re already in a wheelchair. So I think that people who are born with a condition like that have a different outlook, they certainly have a different life experience to people who obtain it as an injury in some way in older life. Particularly in terms of relationships, particularly in terms of dealing with the opposite sex, dealing with love and stuff like that. And so you end up being a very naïve grownup.
The L: How was Sundance?
DO: I’ll tell you, the audiences are fantastic. I went to two screenings; there was a standing ovation on the first night, which was amazing, and then a really interesting question and answer session. What I really brought back from Sundance was a boost to my hopes for the film. The audiences were so responsive to it. And it was unusual, something different happened, which I think shows the polarization of the two audiences, the UK and America. In the UK people asked, ”Were those two actors actually disabled?” and that usually provoked a discussion of the casting of disabled actors, which was a whole heated debate. When they asked the same question in Sundance, I was expecting a similar debate to happen, but they all just simultaneously applauded to show appreciation for the performances, which was incredibly gratifying. And the response from the disabled community was really positive.
Q: Were there any surprises in working with this community?
DO: There were, actually! The first day of my research we went to a home for severely disabled children. And we went around the home and visited the kids, and it was heartbreaking to see these kids with severe physical disabilities. Most of them were bright, intelligent children born, and I found that really depressing, and I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do this. And we were invited two days later to a screening and some residents of the home had made a short film called ‘Identity ”And they’d read that we were making the film, so they invited us to the screening. So I went along expecting some sort of life affirming comedy drama. And instead the film was about one of the residents who went around butchering all the residents and staff. And it showed her going around in the wheelchair stabbing poisoning shooting smothering, like everyone else. And everyone in the care home got their moment.