The cinematic carnival freak show—perhaps most notoriously seen in 1932’s exploitation film Freaks, which has seen a divisive modern reassessment as destigmatizing its mostly disabled cast, or more recently, Guillermo del Toro’s remake of Nightmare Alley—looms large as the predominant vehicle for disability on film. Director Reid Davenport can’t personally escape the shadow of P.T. Barnum, who got his showbiz start as a literal slave driver and made it big by exploiting various people with physical differences. Even after leaving their shared hometown of Bethel, Connecticut for Oakland, Davenport finds himself haunted by a circus tent erected outside his home. Davenport, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, explores this lingering legacy and his own artistic identity in his abstract documentary I Didn’t See You There.
More poetic than confrontational, I Didn’t See You There’s methods embody its purpose better than any synopsis. The doc hums with a hypnotic affinity for architectural patterns and urban textures, the visual infrastructure highly attractive to Davenport since it allows him to immerse us in his point of view without being the view himself. He’s a careful observer, filming satisfying parallel lines, color-blocked concrete and disorientingly samey wall tiling with a transformative slow-burn.
But he’s also still conspicuous, whether textually—thanks to his silhouette (juxtaposed with that red-and-yellow tent in shop window reflections, visually grounding and personalizing his descriptions of performers in freak shows) and voice (complaining about shitty rent-a-scooters obstructing his path)—or metatextually through some of the film’s formal specifics. It’s not just in the frames, often explicitly defined by Davenport’s own range of motion with his handheld and wheelchair-mounted camera, but something you notice even in the captions, which offer far more descriptive sound effect notations than most. It’s not just “[music]” but “[band-like, ominous music barely present];” not just “[rattles]” but “[wheelchair clatters, scrapes against bricks].” The filmmaker’s care surrounding these accessibility features draws attention to him in a way that highlights his thoughtfulness…only because other movies don’t often put in the same effort.
As Davenport laments making a career out of his person, even these little details reiterate the inescapable: That the personal is political and all filmmaking is, to an extent, personal. But are Davenport’s self-cynical worries that he’s subjected himself to a modern freak show justified? That he’s ringmaster to and subject of his own exploitation? These are questions raised by many modern artists, like the sole non-white writer in a TV writers room or those whose life experiences are mined for “look at this” one-and-done essays commissioned by unscrupulous editors. These are also questions Davenport doesn’t satisfyingly address, raised like many of his asides as vague undercurrents supplementing I Didn’t See You There’s day-to-day Expressionism.
Sometimes the film’s attempts at pure visual empathy (not in a hokey “I’m an empath” way but in a literal assumption of Davenport’s POV, or at least one which navigates the world alongside him) are interrupted by too much of this voiceover—too much second guessing or explanation—only sometimes setting up figurative images like that of a dog scratching at a door, unable to fully dictate his own movements. But Davenport’s doc is best as a visual collage built of implication and experience. We see how his enthusiastic niece scampers away with the camera and how his ironic mom’s wagging foot tracks her emotional state in the corner of the screen. We see him mundanely exploit systems built with him as an afterthought, like riding the train for free because the elevator was built in front of the turnstiles, and weather daily indignities from strangers.
As I Didn’t See You There broadly attempts to situate us through Davenport’s eyes, it’s best when it fully commits to its subtlety. Long passages without dialogue highlight the wavering music and Todd Chandler’s artful, sometimes wry editing. Rather than overly directing our thoughts or putting himself on the line as some kind of exhibit, Davenport’s low-key travelogues do the work for him.
Director: Reid Davenport
Release Date: January 24, 2022 (Sundance)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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