digital-disability

Disability in Early & Silent Film

Outside Centre: Disability Perspectives
"Disability everywhere in everything at all times"

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Colin Barnes
Colin Barnes
Professor of Disability, University of Leeds
My favourite disability film is Steve Dwoskin's Face Of Our Fear: this is a dark, atmospheric but compelling documentary that deals with what for me is the essence of disability: ignorance and fear as reproduced in history and culture - brilliant.'

Disability in Early and Silent Cinema 1895 -1928

 

Images of disability, and disabled people, have played a key role in the development of the language of cinema. Many critics have felt that the continuing misrepresentation of disability can be traced back to the earliest days of cinema and its depiction of the disabled character as a figure of fun. Such claims have a lot of validity, as can be seen from the early works of Chaplin and the work of the Edison

and Vitagraph Film Companies (amongst many others). Many studios employed disabled people to work as extras, especially for special effects  purposes  (limbless people being particularly popular for scenes of being run over 1) .

 

It is worth noting how cinema moved away from simpl y seeing the spectacular in  the  ordinary  (the  joy  of  the new medium) and went on to  construct  the  spectacular (the odd, the abnormal, the 'freak' ) through the use of

the medium. The 'innocence', however ideologically suspect it may now appear , of some of the early footage of disabled people is truly wonderful. Often mer-ely having the object of difference - a dwarf, a giant or anoth er 'freak' - alone

in a shot is sufficie nt to validate the medium itself as the spectacular medium society cannot do without. Once cinema developed and moved to a more linear narrative structure one can see the audien ce being much more manipulated to interpret difference, through mise-en-scene at the very least, as a reality lived in opposition to a false presumption of the existence of a normal body, a normal behaviour and a normal morality.