By Ethna Dempsey Lay
This oral narrative history project begins with black and white static images of the two main narrators of the piece. There is a cautionary text, (white letters on a black background) following the stills, which reads: “There is an overall assumption that a physical disability affects brain competency.” It is this cultural warrant that will systematically be debunked over the course of the video. This is immediately argued in that the first movement in the video is that of a woman walking through a bookstore. The viewer watches her back as she moves away from the camera in a regular yet stilted, laborious manner, a rhythmically trudging through a row of books. The audience witnesses how physically difficult it is for the woman to move and notes that she has chosen to expend her limited physical strength in a bookstore. This is perhaps a nod to her unconstrained intellectual strength. Equally significant, the first dialogue is accompanied by the first color. Situated in a corner, a man wearing a blue and white striped shirt is set against a sunflower yellow wall. Although he is physically cornered in the room and by his own physical challenge, the man’s first words smack of his conviction: “I can do everything everyone else is doing. I just do it slower.” Confident colors reinforce his message.
I retell the opening here, because its deliberate plan actively contributes to the narrative’s affective pull. The viewer is initially presented with images of two individuals with physical disabilities who are viewed incompletely at first glance in colorless stillness or from behind. Through the filmmaker’s progressive views of them, the audience learns about their lives. But the filmmaker is clever, handling the audience as if it is a slow learner, juxtaposing relevant halves of the interview systematically and carefully.
The video opens with interviews of two main narrators and two supporting narrators. The relationships between the speakers are not explicitly disclosed. This leaves the viewer with an interesting problem to resolve in terms of human relationships and social interactions. This strategic deferral keeps the audience at bay, effectively preventing it from jumping to conclusions about what it witnesses.
Over the sixteen minutes of the presentation, the individuals react and remark upon their early lives, their present, and their future. Gradually, the audience comes to know them – as children, as adults, as parents, as workers, and as human beings. At base, the filmmaker presents these two as loved and loving. There are some static shots of them together. (Perhaps the viewer might benefit from having more time to regard those photos carefully.) It is interesting that each narrator appears individually while speaking. The effect is to isolate their stories and allow the audience to wonder about their relationship. The open-ended quality of their oral histories invites speculation and contemplation about what it means to be physically challenged.
The curiosity of the viewer mounts as the work continues. Is that the woman’s mother? Is she the woman’s daughter and the man’s son? Are the man and the woman a couple? Were they a couple once? It is a satisfying presentation because by its end, the individuals have narrated a kind of normative life and love story. And it is through this story that the audience learns about what living with a disability is about. For example, the older woman (perhaps the woman’s mother) gestures as she discloses learning of her child’s disability at eighteen months. “This is not something that is going to go away.” She understands that her child will experience a different reality – an alternate sense of what is normal – than what she does. Of course, this is the human capacity and propensity to love. As much has we plan especially with respect to insulating another from difficulties, we cannot prescribe the trajectory of another’s life experiences. We, each of us, must come to terms with our limits and our capabilities alike. Later, the woman stoically comments on her disability: “You get used to what you have.”
What ultimately what is achieved by this oral history is quite stunning. The narrators share their life experiences, and the audience finds universal or parallel truths. Surely, the man’s first words of Part II are common to the experience of all new parents: “That was the greatest time of my life. Having kids. And the hardest thing I ever did, too.” An equally poignant universality is achieved in a moment twice repeated in the production. Their daughter looks earnestly at the interviewer and confesses: “I used to wish that Mom was, um, like other moms.” In these joys and frustrations, the family shown is quite typical after all.
At the end, the filmmaker credits the narrators but they are not named. Why? What motivates the filmmaker’s choice to keep these interesting narrators anonymous? Does their anonymity contribute to the viewer’s new understanding of the piece’s exigence? Are these folks and their struggles meant to be representative of all people, some kind of everyman?
As a project for a writing class, this oral history is proof that new media compositions teach composers “that their personal histories are cultural histories” (Linda Brodkey, Writing Permitted in Designated Areas Only. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. p 209). Furthermore, as a successful responsive assignment, it exhibits what exactly what Cynthia Selfe argues in “Students Who Teach Us: A Case Study of a New Media Text Designer” (inWriting New Media: Theory and Applications for Expanding the Teaching of Composition. Eds. Anne Frances Wysocki, Johndon Johnson-Eilola, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Geoffrey Sirc. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2004 ): “When teachers begin to pay some respectful attention to the new kinds of literacies students develop in these electronic contexts, composition classrooms might become better places in which to learn and teach” (58). Clearly, this project evinces the desirability of such respectful attention.