Michael Barnett's new doc proposes 'radical' idea: let disabled people contribute their talents
Years ago a disabled woman told me a story that has fascinated me ever since.
She said when able-bodied people saw her in a wheelchair, they looked away. But one time she broke her leg and had it in a cast. Able-bodied people, thinking she was just in the wheelchair while healing, routinely came up to ask how she had hurt herself.
What did I learn from this story? That there is something about disability that makes us very uncomfortable, something we would rather turn away from, that makes us conscious of our human frailty. Disability frightens us.
The new documentary Becoming Bulletproof explores what can happen when we get over that fear.
Michael Barnett's movie focuses on a filmmaking camp put on by the organization Zeno Mountain Farm, where once a year able-bodied and disabled actors and crew join together to make an original short.
The documentary's main character is A.J. Murray, an aspiring actor with Cerebral Palsy, who plays the key role of the mayor in the Western Bulletproof Jackson. He is one of the most profound and touching individuals I've ever seen in a documentary film.
Becoming Bulletproof opens at the Pasadena Playhouse 7 theaters in Southern California this Friday for a one-month run. It previously qualified for Oscar consideration with one-week engagements in New York and Los Angeles.
Nonfictionfilm.com spoke with director Michael Barnett, who is able-bodied, about his experience making this poignant and eye-opening film.
Nonfictionfilm.com: How did you come to direct Becoming Bulletproof?
Michael Barnett: Suzi Barrett, a very old friend who had been volunteering with Zeno for years, had been asking me for a long time to come around [to the filmmaking camp]. And I kept making excuses, really for a couple of years, “I was too busy, life was getting in the way, I was on projects.” Really I was making excuses because I was afraid of what that meant. I had no experience with disability and deep down inside I had preconceived notions that I didn’t want to address. Looking back now I realize how absurd it is, considering that that version of me doesn’t exist anymore.
NFF: What was your initial reaction attending the camp?
MB: It seemed like this kind of utopian look, from the outside, of this little sub-society existing right under our noses.
NFF: You didn't embark on a film right away.
MB: We spent like a year sort of getting to know each other, gaining trust, but what I was learning over the course of that year was that it wasn’t some sort of utopian philosophy. It was actually just a really simple concept that seems radical to the outside world, but it’s really not. It’s this idea that it’s a basic human right to be included. And in that inclusion should come community and love and friendship. It was really simple. Shouldn’t we all live that way?
When I first got there it was overwhelming, actually. Just the emotion of it all.
NFF: The film contains many powerful and moving moments from the actors, some with Down's Syndrome, others with Cerebral Palsy or other quite challenging conditions. As the filmmaker who was there in the moment -- what was it like for you?
MB: When I first got there it was overwhelming, actually. Just the emotion of it all.
The very first day [of filming] Will [Halby, Zeno Mountain Farm co-director] and everybody asked me how I thought the first day went and I couldn’t talk. I just started crying. Which is absurd to me now, you know. Now these guys are just like peers and friends. It was so new to me. And I didn’t know how to emotionally handle what was going on because it was like a mix of happiness and tragedy, right? You kind of put all those things together and you turn into an emotional basket case unless you have the experience and you’re equipped to handle it. But it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t make people emotional. It should just be. And then I got a little more experience after a couple days and it started to become the norm to me and then with that I sort of got my footing emotionally.
NFF: Tell me more about A.J. Murray and your decision to shape the film around him.
MB: He’s from Atlanta. He’s a 30 year old African-American guy who has Cerebral Palsy. And very sort of severe Cerebral Palsy. He’s very physically limited but he has an incredibly ambitious mind. His body cannot keep up with his mind. And I think that’s a bit of a curse for him. Not a bit -- it’s a curse. It’s a huge burden for him because he has this mind that wants to accomplish great things. And it’s not that he can’t. It requires some creative thought on how to approach his goals and his ambitions.
When he came to the camp he was so new to the process that I really thought focusing on someone who was going through this for the first time -- and it’s really emotional what they go through. It’s like being totally included on a very deep, creative level and a process that’s quite big. It became a no-brainer very quickly after we met him that he was going to be our sort of guiding voice through this story... I mean I’m so glad we chose him. He was the right choice. He’s so eloquent and emotional.
It’s a film about living out your dreams in extraordinary ways. I mean everybody has the right to do that, or at least try.
NFF: Why do you think as a society we are so uncomfortable with disability and seem to want to shove it aside and not acknowledge or confront it or certainly accept it?
MB: That’s a very tough question to answer because it’s an epidemic, you know. It trickles through our whole society unless for some reason you become an advocate or an educator in the community, or you’re related to somebody in the community. I think by and large we turn a blind eye -- we completely marginalize the disability community.
I think there’s so many [reasons why] It could be very sad and we don’t want to deal with it. It can be a financial or an emotional burden and we don’t want to deal with it. It can be that it puts into perspective our own existence and we don’t want to deal with it. It could be that their stories aren’t shared by and large so we have no experience so the fear of the unknown makes us not want to deal with it... We leave these guys to wither on the vine unless they can advocate for themselves. And some can. I’ve met some powerful people in the disability community who are fiercely powerful in their approach and with their voice and there’s other people who can’t speak for themselves, literally speak for themselves. So who gets to speak for them and advocate for them? It’s such a massive community and it’s a disjointed and fractured one. Because you’re sort of lumping everything under this one term, ‘disability’. What does that even mean, you know?
NFF: Even the term is...
MB: It has negative connotations.
NFF: ... I don’t know if ‘pejorative’ is the word. It’s kind of dehumanizing.
MB: It is a pejorative, though. So is ‘handicapped.’ I didn’t realize this film was about diversity when I first started making it. Because I didn’t think -- that’s my own preconceived notions -- I didn’t think of disability as diversity. I thought it was its own category when in fact it is diversity. They’re a minority, in fact they’re the largest minority in our society. I think our film, as Will says, it’s an experiment in extreme diversity. If we just include people with disability in our community, in our lives, in our stories... I don’t know why we can’t make strides in that. I think that just comes with sharing these stories. And I hope that’s what our film does.
NFF: A lot of stars have really gotten behind this film -- Chris Cooper, Ted Danson, Mary Steenburgen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Guest, Amy Brenneman. Why do you think so many Hollywood people have embraced it?
MB: One of the big things this film is about is acting. It's about being honest. It's about being present. And I think actors when they see the film they really respond to it... But it has been their emotional reaction by and large as to why we sort of have this celebrity support -- which is great. This film needs it badly... I think people think, “Oh, it’s about disability, it’s going to break my heart.” Some of it is sad, just like life. But I think ultimately it’s a joyous film. I think it’s a film about living out your dreams in extraordinary ways. I mean everybody has the right to do that, or at least try.
NFF: At a Q&A for the film I heard Amy Brenneman talk about the concept of "radical inclusion." I wasn't really familiar with that term.
MB: I think “radical inclusion” is a made-up term that we really like [laughs]. I’m sure people have used it before but it just seems very fitting for this story and this community and this philosophy... [As a society] we’ve made a lot of strides [in inclusion]. Really the only community that’s made zero strides -- it’s not even part of the diverse or inclusive conversation -- is the disability community. So we need a term like “radical inclusion” I think to just like open people’s hearts and minds to understand that the truly marginalized should at least get a seat here, should at least get to be a part of this conversation. I just like that term. We heard it once about a year ago and we all were like, “That’s it!” Because what is radical inclusion? It’s a very simple notion, which is let’s let these guys be human and contribute.
MB: Our film is an advocacy piece and I think it’s a civil rights movie, actually. But it’s a really quiet one. It doesn’t sort of stand from a mountaintop and scream, “We need to change the law!” It just says we as a society should take a look -- if you want to. Or just come to our movie because it’s really entertaining. Whatever you want to take from it.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.