Dame Demure is a dwarf who chews glass. Peg-Leg has a prosthetic limb, and a torso festooned with lesions. Jackie the Half-Woman, born without legs, scampers around on her hands. These are not characters excised from the Watchmen movie, but the disabled performers whose tour of the US in the name of entertainment is chronicled in Richard Butchins's documentary The Last American Freak Show.
- The Last American Freak Show
- Release: 2008
- Country: USA
- Directors: Richard Butchins
"I think 'freak' is a word that needs to be reclaimed, in the same way that 'queer' has been by gay people," Butchins explains. "Making this film put me in touch with my disability in a way I hadn't been before. I felt looked-at, whereas I'd always taken great pains to hide my disability."
Unfortunately, the hysterical reaction to the film has confirmed that able-bodied society, or at least its representatives on festival committees and funding boards, would prefer stories about disabled people to be consoling or uplifting. Bafta made the headlines last year when it cancelled a screening of Freak Show. "It said my film showed an inappropriate representation of disability and raised too many questions," scoffs Butchins. "One funding organisation said it felt the film wasn't 'disability-empowering'." And while Freak Show will play next week in the London International Documentary festival, it is perhaps more typical of the general response that Butchins was recently invited to screen it in a Canadian horror film festival.
The picture is uncomfortable viewing, and not just because of its unsentimental depiction of disability. The freakshow is run by two able-bodied people who are different kinds of freaks - control freaks - and whose motives are opaque, to say the least. Then there is the footage of shoppers grimacing openly at the sight of Peg-Leg (real name Ken). Could it be that those who would happily see the movie buried are protecting their own delicate sensibilities, under cover of defending the disabled? In his book Inventing the Victorians, Matthew Sweet points out that Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, made a pretty penny from putting himself on display, and himself wrote the very pamphlets that described him as freakish. None of that made it into David Lynch's 1980 movie, and Butchins's film proves that able-bodied society is no closer to accepting that the disabled hold the rights to their own self-image.
When Gary Sinise has his legs digitally removed to play an amputee in Forrest Gump, or Robert De Niro goes into twitching overdrive for Awakenings, we feel safe in the knowledge that the performers concerned don't have to live with their onscreen disability. They'll be back on the tennis court in no time.
The use of disfigured and disabled people to man the gates of hell in Michael Winner's The Sentinel (1977) is now rightly decried, just as the sight of Leslie Ash being terrorised by a group of Down's Syndrome actors in the bizarre Shadey (1986) seems in appalling taste. But just last year, when Special People, a comedy with a predominantly disabled cast, was released, the BBFC felt it necessary to warn viewers that it contained - brace yourselves - "disability themes". Such a squeamish reaction is not so far from the revulsion those earlier movies exploited.
Butchins believes the reason The Last American Freak Show has met such opposition is not because society has moved on from exploitation, but because we are more prone to it than ever. "Don't think the freak show has gone away," he says. "It hasn't. It's there in those shock-docs on TV. You don't pay a dollar to look at these people in a tent, so it feels OK. But it's worse because they're still being exploited by able-bodied people. You can be sure that the one person who doesn't get paid in Britain's Hairiest Man, or whatever it might be called, is Britain's hairiest man."
• The Last American Freak Show screens in the London International Documentary festival on 31 March. See lidf.co.uk for details
The Guardian, 27th March 2009