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Paul Darke Interview 
White Sticks, Wheels and Crutches: Disability And The Moving Image

Paul BFI Video Transcript

Paul bfi Interview
White Sticks, Wheels and Crutches: Disability And The Moving Image

Who is Paul Darke
My name is Dr. Paul Darke. I did my PhD in Disability and cinema at the University of Warwick under professor Richard Dyer. And my PhD was looking at how Disability is represented in a range of films that cover Disability and impairment such as My Left Foot,  A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg and Whose Life Is Any Way and a few others.

But equally, I was very interested in Disability. I've been in the Disability movement for seems like decades. And I, I always felt that criticism written, criticism in the newspapers television had no real understanding of Disability and cinema. Equally it ignored it because often Disability is  in everything and yet it never gets mentioned. It's not seen as it's not seen as Disability and yet it's,  a fundamental part of the history of cinema.  I think that's what drove me to do the PhD and to, to research more. I've been writing about it ever since.

Normal Vs Abnormal

I think in cinema, what Disability represents is the battle in society and culture between the normal and the abnormal. I think society, especially in especially modern Western capitalist with the advance and the dominance of medicalisation. What you have is a very clear dichotomy between the good and the bad, the good of being normal and the bad being abnormal and Disability is in that middle kind of area, No-man's land where they're better. That battle is fought so often you, you get to different kinds of Disability representation, the good cripple and the bad cripple. The good cripple is often seen as the Disabled person who tries to be normal. The bad cripple is one who revels in their abnormality.

Good & Ban Films

I think Children Of A Lesser God is a really interesting film.  I actually think it's a good film. I quite enjoy it. I think it, revels in Deaf culture. It revels in that difference and it actually has. “The Normal” individual have to discuss and articulate with Marlee Matlin on her terms. Obviously he then to do it backwards and he speaks everything she says, but in a way that, that was the breakthrough. Not particularly that it was a Deaf actress. There was an awful amount of guilt in Hollywood that, you know, they'd been awarding awards to non-Disabled actors for doing lesser work for decades.

And so I think that was it  was a good move and it's given Marlee Matlin a career. I think she's in the West Wing now and she does it very well. Many films that are really bad, but actuallo, I see them as being good because what they offer is they revel in difference. They revel in, in abnormally in a way that most films, most culture doesn't.

And I think, you know, One only has to look at any British film made in the last 50 years and it's that things from The Raging Moon to A Day In The Death Of Joe Egg or even the film version of Duet Duet For One with Julia Andrews, having MS, which is hysterical from the beginning to end. It's actually quite funny, because it's so bad. But what it offers is, is an understanding of what stereotypes are. Stereotypes are accurate in the sense that they reveal the relationship between groups in society.

I think My Left Foot is, is a very good filter as an example. I think I, because it's a bad film that in relation to Disability, what it says is that's the good cripple, the good cripple who tries their best to be normal, both educationally, his ability to articulate, to speak it's about that Disabled person I'm crippled, who wants to be normal to the extent that he hates cripples. He talks about the cripples quite disparagingly. So it's quite relevant. And again, that reveals what society wants. It wants Disabled people to be normal people.

And those who reject that will be marginalized. So it's revealing. Of the nature of society.  But equally I think what it does is it's about the nature of acting, most, loved Disability films win awards, especially for acting, you know, the Oscars is littered every year with a Disability performance and I think one has to think, why do, why do people like that? Why do I act like that? And it's because it's the only chance they get to show the public that they're acting.

On “Freaks”

I think Freaks is a really, really interesting film. And I, I think it's a brilliant film. I really enjoy it. I think, , I don't Matt Fraser for example, says it's his favorite film because if for no other reason, it employs Disabled, real Disabled actors, throughout the whole thing, which is, which is brilliant. But equally it explores what it is to be a Freak it revels in the notion of difference. And I think it's, it's, it's a really bold if not brave move by the BFI to release it because it is, it's a very controversial film, not just in mainstream society, but in Disability community.

A lot of people really despise it because they think it marginalizes Disabled people as Freaks. I don't think it does that. I think, I think the Freak is grossly maligned. The Freak often had a degree of power wealth, and self-empowerment that far exceeded the individual lives of ordinary people in the society that they lived in.  For some of The Elephant Man was an incredibly wealthy individual. He had an enormous amount of power and self-control what sad is that the film takes that away from him and completely distorts his life.

Disability and Emplom

You make what people are allowed to make by allow, I mean, give you the money and funders tend to want the same kind of crap that everybody else makes. And so the idea that if Disabled people make it it'll be better or they're in it, it will be bad, is a misnomer. For example, The Idiots made by a non-Disabled person. Yet it has an insight into Disability that very few Disability, filmmakers or actors could ever show.

Difference - who needs it?

I think the, when individuals or groups or the media talk about this ideal society, to me, what they're saying is a society without Disabled people, even more than that, they're saying a society without difference, which to me is the end of society. And, and really, it would be an absolute tragedy.

I think that cinema has fallen that very closely in giving society views of difference that pandered, that illusion, that perfection is attainable or that perfection is desirable because I think sadly perfection probably is attainable. But to me, the problem is, is it's not in the least desirable. Cinema often has portrayed it's Disabled characters as very much supporting that idea, you know, we're different, but the good ones of us want to  spend our lives wanting to be normal, want to be perfect, want to be Paralympians or Olympians. You know, it's a sad pastime in my view, as life's much more interested in that, and it doesn't really encompass in any great depth.

There are examples the notion that society is better off and more valuable and more equal tolerate, not just tolerate, but supports and actively creates value in difference. A film for example, like The Idiots does that to me, what it says is that differences at the heart of what is a good society, and it's only bad societies that have these fantasies and delusions of the ideal and perfection.

About the catalogue

To me, what it offers most Is the archive stuff. I think there's some wonderful stuff there, that opens debate, because a lot of people would say, Oh, this is horrible and offensive, but other people say, that's what our history is. Disabled people's history is there's almost been eradicated, but considering we were institutionalized, sectioned, abused put away for decades on end for crimes, we never committed, the only crime we ever committed was being different.

But to be put in, in a crippling from the age of. Six months till you're 21. And then if you're lucky, you might get into some long-term institution. We've got archive footage, the BFI I've got archive, which the now clearly shows this history and it's great stuff. It really is great stuff.


The BFI didn't have a Disability catalog before, and it was essential that it had one and as such, it was a bold and brave move of the BFI to instigate a Disability catalog that isn't merely a list, but it actually covers a vast range of subjects. It's got many essays in it that cover sexuality,  how to do a good festival programming, , issues of positive and negative. A whole range of issues are explored in it.

But to me, one of the best things about is its depth and breadth of, of material. Most festivals, for example, in the past show, the same four or five films from the same 20 year period. This catalog clearly shows that Disability is at the heart of the hundred years of cinema from early archive film from fairgrounds, the Mitchell and Kenyon stuff and then, just odd archive film, they've got, such as film from The Lord Mayor Treloar  cripplage in the twenties of one legged children knocking the crap out of one another in boxing matches. Great stuff!


It offers a lot to people looking at the catalog, be they academics be they media people be, they just interested people off the street or, you know, Disabled people in particular to go beyond this myth, that Disability is invisible because that's still a very strongly held myth that Disability is invisible in society.

Sexuality on Cinema

I think filmmakers think society, the audience can't deal with it. And they're probably right, because I think it's about the nature of society. Society has a deeply Janus-faced attitude towards Disabled people. On the one hand it promulgates equality.  whilst on the other hand, through like abortion screening institutionalization, it completely tries to wipe out Disabled people as it completely has for example, my condition spinal bifida, there is almost no people being born with spinal bifida. Now they're conceived, but they're just aborted or then a infanticide left to die as babies. So you've got that kind of, it's a massive contradiction battle, and to me, sexuality it's the way the society deals with that, but denying that we have a sexuality, right?

It sanitizes us, it almost like dehumanises us as to become saints or superheroes or deviance or those kinds of things. And so what it's doing is dealing with that,  massive contradiction. In culture often in lots of very tricky subjects for yourself with race. I think it does it with sexuality, big guy, homosexuality.  Slightly raises it so that it's not an issue because it doesn't know how to deal with it. Cinema doesn't know how to deal with it because the society doesn't add a deal with it. So, it does these two incredibly contractionary things, massive equality whilst the same time around to wipe you out successfully.

You know, and that's a little bit of a ration and that's what cinema does.

My Favourite films

My, my personal favorite films are films. Chaz, The Idiots, or even say, Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein. And to me because they have depth. They don't do what a lot of films about Disability do, which is individualize it. The  way society often defeats any kind of political challenge to itself is by individualizing personal issues. So Disability in cinema is by and large seen as a personal thing. It does that with race, does it with gender. It does it with sexuality. When in fact they are. Primarily social and political issues. And to me, a film like The Idiot does that. And even Young Frankenstein does that. It explores difference in a very, very serious way.

You know what I'm saying? Young Frankenstein is a very serious, it's a brilliant comic film, but it has a very serious intent behind it that understands the depth and issues of Disability. And what difference is.

In the whole history of cinema, the films I wish I had made that have Disability, I think would be. Would include films. Yeah. Mel Brooks is Young Frankenstein, which to me is an absolute masterpiece, but then there's other films. For example, like Steve, Dwoskins Trying To Kiss The Moon, Steve is a Disabled guy, but to me Trying To Kiss The Moon as an absolute masterpiece about the experience of Disability, but also as a piece of film, I think he's an artist.

Musicals I, when I grew up and because like everyone else in society, I want it to be normal. I loved Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films. So I would have loved to have made a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, even if it was only to be able to kiss Ginger who I absolutely adored. And I think following on from that to make a dance film with Disability would be, an absolute dream of mine.

I think the value of Disability for society is immense. I actually think it's the key issue of the late 20th century, early 21st century, that holds hope for freedom from repression, by that, I mean, the repression that we all inflict on ourselves to control ourselves to be particular kinds of individuals and Disability. It threatens that, but to me in a very positive way, and it opens up the sphere of what we can all be and choose to be in a way that is unimaginable and liberating beyond belief. Well, I would push for is not the, you know, Disabled people should be represented this way or that way. The whole point is, is that it should be.

In all forms of representation, be it bad, I'm happy to be portrayed as asexual and deviant. Some of us are, but the point is, if that's all you're ever portrayed of that, that's kind of pointless. It's the whole spectrum that we want to be portrayed as, as participant, we want to participate in that, across the whole spectrum so that we can make films about ourselves in whatever way we choose.