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“I didn’t know if it was going to make sense, but I just couldn’t stop filming it,” remembers filmmaker Reid Davenport of a circus tent that was erected outside of his Oakland apartment. But Davenport kept the camera rolling on the circus tent, using it as a jumping-off point for what would become his feature documentary debut, I Didn’t See You There.
The feature, which premiered in the 2022 Sundance Film Festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition section, draws a direct line between the circus’ legacy of the “freak show” and the ableism that Davenport, who has cerebral palsy, confronts on a day-to-day basis. Without the director, himself, appearing onscreen, the doc is wholly shot from Davenport’s perspective using footage filmed from his wheelchair.
Outside of I Didn’t See You There, Davenport is behind short documentaries Ramped Up and A Cerebral Game. He also co-founded Through My Lens, a nonprofit that seeks to amplify the voice of people with disabilities through, among other avenues, the creation of content and media consultancy.
Ahead of winning Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Directing Award, Davenport talked to The Hollywood Reporter about making I Didn’t See You There.
How did this doc get started?
I find that question very difficult to answer. It is such an extension of myself. When I first started shooting, I didn’t know if it was a film or a gallery piece or a social media installation. I just wanted to start exploring visuals and pairing it with voiceovers and just kept doing it, and getting deeper and deeper into it. And, now, here we are.
At what point did you realize you were making a feature?
I think a big part of it was when I shared with my friend Keith Wilson about three minutes of footage, and the next day he texted me and said, “I want to produce this film.” And that is when I realized, OK, maybe this is a film. That was really a huge moment in the process. It’s one thing to say it’s a film. It’s another thing to have someone say, “Let me work on this with you.”
I feel there is unique anxiety that comes with stating, “I am making a movie.”
I guess maybe that’s why I wouldn’t say it. Well, if I don’t say I am making a movie, I can’t be disappointed or disappoint other people if it doesn’t turn out to be a movie. (Laughs.)
How did you accomplish your camerawork?
A lot of it is handheld, but most of it was from my wheelchair. [The camera] was rubber banded to my wheelchair.
I haven’t seen that POV in a movie, previously. Was that important for you to have audiences see that physical perspective onscreen?
Absolutely. It’s this notion of being overseen, being a spectacle. To me, my perspective was much more important than my body and how I can move, et cetera.
At one point in your movie, you mention how you hope this is your last “personal film.” Why?
There is a certain amount of vulnerability I felt in making this feature that I didn’t feel in previous work. There are so many political topics about disability that lie pretty far outside my own life that I think are important. Obviously, we’re making a film from my perspective, but also my life is my life, and I would like to explain it beyond that.
Did you have an audience in mind during production?
Yeah, I would love to have wheelchair users recognize their perspective in this film. I don’t know how successful I was, but that was one of my goals for the film.
Do you have a dream documentary project?
We are working documentary right now with Multitude Films, which produced Pray Away, about how disabled people have and continue to die under the guise of assisted suicides.
How has the experience been screening at Sundance?
It’s been wild to see all of this press and the reviews come out. I am surprised that I haven’t been totally overwhelmed yet. Although I just said it, so it will probably happen soon. (Laughs.)
What would you like Hollywood to know about working with documentary filmmakers with disabilities?
Get out of our way and be conscious of the barriers you are putting out. When you see problematic documentaries about disability, you don’t want to necessarily associate with the field. So, it’s about engaging these perspectives in a meaningful way and making sure this isn’t a fad-slash-woke moment for you to talk about in your press release. Being that documentaries have not adequately represented the topic of disability or people with disability, seek out filmmakers that are hungry to reverse that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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