Reid Davenport’s new feature documentary I Didn’t See You There is ironically titled, the kind of half-thoughtful thing someone might say in apology after, say, nearly running over a person in a wheelchair they didn’t notice at an intersection.
The title also speaks to a much bigger question contained within Davenport’s extremely personal doc, which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival, in the experimental section. At various points, Davenport muses on what it means to been seen as a disabled person, in his case, someone managing cerebral palsy, using a motorized, nearly silent wheelchair and public transport to move around his city.
Like Framing Agnes, another Sundance debut this past week that looked at a crucial period in transsexual history, I Didn’t See You There interrogates whether visibility for an often harassed group means acceptance, spectacle, vulnerability, or all of the above.
Sometimes, the films suggest, not being seen, being allowed to make your way through life unmolested, is the best people such as Davenport, or the other doc’s Agnes, can hope for. With Agnes, we see reconstructions of researchers’ 1950s interviews with trans patients (all played by trans actors). With I Didn’t See You There, we only hear, and never see, Davenport.
When a giant red circus tent pops up down the street from his apartment in Oakland, Calif., Davenport muses about the history of freak shows, which turned people with disabilities into barely hidden public spectacles. The history lesson has a personal connection for Davenport. His hometown of Bethel, Conn., is also the birthplace of the man who invented the traveling freak show, circus impresario P.T. Barnum.
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“As society became uncomfortable with the idea of the freak show, it started to fade away,” Davenport says, though he acknowledges maybe the freak show just morphed. “I can feel it when I’m stared at, and when I’m not seen. Do you see me? A cynical part of me wonders if I have joined the show. I’ve made a career out of putting myself in front of the camera.”
This time, he’s not in front of the camera, just holding it everywhere he goes. Davenport mixes in video he shot while riding in his wheelchair, using a 4K-resolution action camera from the drone maker DJI mounted on a stabilizing gimbal.
The approach provides a chair-high perspective on the world around Davenport, and the challenges he faces. As Davenport whizzes along sidewalks and streets in his motorized wheelchair, the camera captures long shots of abstract surfaces, light and shadow, fences, pavement, and more. The shots are reverie-inducing, hypnotic and rather enchanting despite their prosaic provenance.
Then come the hard realities of navigating urban life, even in the most accommodating of cities, for someone in a wheelchair. It might be the construction zone that turns a sidewalk into an obstacle course, or the clueless people slowly loading their convertible’s trunk while blocking the sidewalk ramp.
It might be a fat electrical cord draped across the entry to his apartment, or yes, that SUV easing through a crosswalk, blithely indifferent to Davenport in his chair. Watch for a while and you quickly begin to understand the truculence, the outrage that Davenport sometimes expresses.
As his mother says on a visit to Bethel, “Sometimes, I think you ended up in a spot you never wanted to be in, politicized. That’s okay. Sometimes, you say things I don’t understand why you’re so offended. I take a step back. It’s a learning process for me and I eventually come around to see your side.”
The documentary is very much about Davenport presenting his side. But when it came time to cut together the 60 to 80 hours he’d shot, Davenport and producer Keith Wilson called in an outsider, editor Todd Chandler, then coming off promoting Bulletproof, his 2020 documentary about schools and gun violence.
“Reid, as a director, knows what he’s doing,” Chandler said. “Part of what he’s doing is knowing that you want to give up some part of control (over your project). It’s a gamble, sure, but part of the process is building up that trust. Over weeks and months, that is what we did.”
The three spent a year shaping the footage, Chandler editing with Adobe’s Premiere Pro mostly on an older Macintosh computer, trying to balance the film’s lyrically abstract segments with its more confrontational ones, and with Davenport’s musings on the history of freak shows and the status of disabled people in a supposedly mainstreamed world.
The abstract segments “are great shots and so interesting,” Chandler said. “Part of the film is the contrast. You get to see these moments of abstractions and then they get punctured by the outside world. There’s something about being in motion. There’s this liminal space where there’s room for dreaming, and then that gets punctured.”
What resulted, Chandler said, was an approach very different from Davenport’s previous works focused on disabled issues: “’Here are the structural issues, and we’re not going to talk about social change. There are films that do that.’ This film takes a different approach and I find it radical in that way. We’re making a film that’s an experimental film and one that also deals with some issues. Striking that balance was a tricky one.”
Editing the project helped stretch Chandler’s mind too, he said.
“People said, ‘His work is so radically different, aesthetically, than this, why are you interested?’”Chandler said. ”I said, ‘That’s exactly why I’m interested. I get to inhabit someone else’s vision.”
In fact, we all get to inhabit Davenport’s vision.