“Becoming Bulletproof” is an award-winning documentary currently on the film festival circuit. It shows the making of an original short Western called “Bulletproof.” Because many of the cast and crew have disabilities, the documentary is described as being part of an overall awareness-raising strategy to promote integration and creative opportunities. But it goes so much further than awareness-raising. In fact, “Becoming Bulletproof” shows a major attitude shift in action, modeling relationships and interactions that rarely happen in larger society in a group that’s come together by choice. Star AJ Murray says that working on the movie, he felt “significance, dignity, and purpose.” These are things not offered him in his typical daily life as a Black man with disabilities. Our society is set up to isolate disabled people, force many into dependence on family, and reinforce other-ness at every turn. So I say hats off to “Becoming Bulletproof.”
The documentary, directed by Michael Barnett, takes place at Zeno Mountain Farm, an intriguing place that’s as much a location as a philosophy. They run integrated camps for adults where no one pays tuition and no one gets paid to work. The founders value a world where disabled people aren’t segregated or shut out of opportunities because of cost. One of the many projects they do every year is to create a film. This is where “Bulletproof,” the short film is developed.
From the documentary’s Facebook page: “‘Becoming Bulletproof’ will explore the friendships that develop between people with and without disabilities as they live together for the duration of the movie camp. The film digs into the beauty and difficulty of the relationships of people who come from all walks of life. In addition, ‘Becoming Bulletproof’ follows the campers home to show what it means to be disabled in a modern world. Going home with the campers breaks preconceived notions that the audience may have about what living with a disability is truly like.”
There are tons of people in the film, and one documentary can’t provide intimate portraits of everyone in a cast this large. The emphasis is on profiling some of the 18 actors with disabilities and showing their insights, perspectives, and even their bodies more than those of the non-disabled participants. That’s potentially dangerous territory; this dynamic usually leads to an unexamined recreation of the circus freak show. Yet, “Becoming Bulletproof” handles this gracefully without objectifying the disabled actors. My guess is that the emphasis was on disabled people because most audiences are significantly less likely to have seen people with disabilities onscreen. So they are very interesting and novel documentary film subjects. Additionally, it might be a product of the Zeno founders and the documentary film creators being non-disabled and the fact that they’ve targeted their film to a non-disabled audience.
If you follow this blog, you know how often I write about the dire need our media landscape has for more disabled media makers and performers, as well as characters with disabilities. It’s beyond outrageous the lengths people will go to, to avoid working with the disability community. I’ve worked with people here in Portland who complained that we shouldn’t hire disabled folks because “they’ll never get anything done” or “it’s too much work to accommodate them” (as if you know from the word “disability” what accommodations you might have to provide before you meet someone).
My hope and dream is that people who see this documentary will awaken to how stigmatizing and oppressive these ableist attitudes are. In less than an hour and a half, in this film you see a huge range of ways in which people with disabilities get tremendous amounts done, and the accommodations needed weren’t considered burdensome. For these reasons, I hope the film also gets targeted to disability communities as well so that people can see themselves reflected back not as help objects, pitiful, inspirational, or a trouble someone has to shoulder.
“Becoming Bulletproof” is a phenomenal film with absolutely top-notch videography and audio. It’s clear in every step of both the short film and the documentary, that all of the performers were treated like professionals and expected to perform as such. I’ve seen the documentary described online as “uplifting.” Sure, I cried a couple times out of sheer happiness when I watched it. But if uplifted is the strongest thing you felt, you missed at least half of what the movie has to offer. “Becoming Bulletproof” doesn’t have to be a feel-good film where you praise the non-disabled people for being thoughtful helpers and the disabled people for doing a special job making their special movie. This is a group of people making a real short film, having a real documentary made about them; some of them are disabled, while some are not.
I know some people will come away from this movie “inspired” but without motivation to work toward equity in society. I do have faith that others will leave saying, “Damn it. We should be creating and allowing for 20% of our nation’s population to create and show up in, oh, maybe 20% of our media!” As AJ put it, “I want disability to have a seat at the table in pop culture.” This is not about saying “you’re such a good actor, I forget you have a disability.” This is about naming it truthfully and living with integrity and respect. AJ is referring to correcting the lack of representations and the misrepresentations of disability in media and culture. The Zeno Mountain Farm performers and stars of “Becoming Bulletproof” are most certainly going to be among the leaders in this movement.