There are times when life with a disability feels like a series of unflinching moments, a desire to simply be and to be seen through the lens of normalcy often lost, or worse ignored, by an inaccessible society that fully expects that I will somehow cater to their stereotypes of disability as either that which the late Australian comic called "inspiration porn" or something resembling the "poor me" bullshit that radiates throughout society and wins Academy Awards.
I don't know if writer/director Reid Davenport is eyeballing an Academy Award for his debut feature doc I Didn't See You There, though he did pick up the Best Director prize for Doc Features at Sundance, the Grand Jury Award at Full Frame, and the doc feature prize at San Francisco Film Festival among other prizes. So, hey, I'm not about to rule out the idea. What I do know is that I Didn't See You There is one of 2022's most innovative and effective doc features precisely because Davenport is unflinching of his portrayal seeing and being seen through the lens of disability. I Didn't See You There is simultaneously exhilarating and exhausting, a doc feature that resonated deeply despite the myriad of differences in our lives bridged by the common ground of being disabled creatives in a world where that's far too often either novelty or non-existent.
I Didn't See You There finds its brilliant foundation in the spectacle of a circus tent that seemingly rises out of nowhere near Davenport's Oakland apartment. For those who've ever been viewed as an oddity, freak, or novelty, it's a jarring experience that is often so much integrated with what it means to live as a person with a disability that these scenes won't so much elicit disgust as they will resignation and an overwhelming sense of familiarity. I Didn't See You There can be a tough view precisely because Davenport refuses to compromise to make his audience feel better. He refuses to cater to disability stereotypes and declines invitations to be either inspiration porn or some melancholy "poor me" bullshit monster. Davenport doesn't soften the blow of the view he gives us, though neither does he amplify it.
He doesn't need to amplify it. His words and images tell the only story that needs to be told.
I Didn't See You There is shot entirely by Davenport himself from his literal physical perspective as a wheelchair user and an individual with spasticity. Davenport fervently avoids overly revealing himself here and refuses to talk about diagnoses because, quite frankly, disability is a social construct rather than a medical phenomenon. If you are prone to motion sickness or dizziness, be aware that I Didn't See You there is nearly constantly in motion whether through the rapidly spinning tires of Davenport's motorized wheelchair or the subtle yet frequent spastic motions that add an element of immersion to how he frames his shots and what he chooses to show us.
If you haven't gathered by now, I'm also a wheelchair user who, somewhat embarrassingly, recognized my own struggles with internalized ableism in moments throughout I Didn't See You There. It has only been in the last 3-4 years that I've come face-to-face with the fact that even many of those with whom I've worked in both creative writing settings and my role as a film journalist are largely unaware of what is my own visible disability since I am Indiana based and seldom deal with my Hollywood contacts face-to-face. It's not so much that I hide it, at least I don't think so, but that I don't fully own it. It was a limb amputation in late 2019 that had me scrambling to meet deadlines and having to explain my temporary inability to do so that helped me take a detour into becoming more friendly to my own disability professionally.
I found myself over and over and over again absolutely loving Davenport's refusal to overly self-reveal instead, I would surmise, giving us the view where so many choose to stop anyway. I Didn't See You There is a meditation on spectacle, visibility, invisibility, and the "othering" that sometimes feels as if it defines what it means to be disabled. If you have a disability, there are many experiences that unfold here that will have you looking at the screen loudly proclaiming "I've had that happen" from seemingly well-meaning but othering strangers to abrasive bus drivers who want disability their way to other seemingly simple yet exhausting encounters that make you want to take whatever spoons you have left and toss them in the direction of the next ableist asshole.
I hesitate to call I Didn't See You There an observational documentary, though I'm also not quite convinced it qualifies as immersive given Davenport's clear artistic choice to avoid immersing us in his life. We learn very little about Davenport over the course of the film's 76-minute running time, by Davenport's choice, other than knowing for certain that his endearing mother calls fairly regularly and he has planted himself in California since he started making short films and completing an MFA at Stanford in 2016 while the majority of his family still resides in Bethel, Connecticut. Bethel was, which I found kind of hilarious, also the home of one P.T. Barnum.
With intelligence and insight, Davenport has crafted a film that is both intimate and universal yet broadens the definition of both. I Didn't See You There is a film that practically defines disability pride because Davenport refuses to compromise his disability for the sake of the audience, a bit of poignancy, or unnecessary histrionics. He takes pride in his disability and demands that we look at it and how it impacts his worldview and how the world views him. Despite the many moments of frustration represented here, I Didn't See You There is brimming with an earthy joyfulness devoid of inspiration porn and instead defined by Davenport's accomplished life and his absolute refusal to be pigeonholed into some comfortable stereotype.
The imagery that comes to life here is chaotic yet cohesive, spontaneous yet magnificently structured by a filmmaker who knows exactly what he wants to say and exactly what he wants his audience to see. The truth is that I Didn't See You There is an absolutely terrific feature directing debut from Davenport and I absolutely can't wait to see where he takes his filmmaking in the future.
Davenport knows damn well that he could likely reach a wider audience if he'd give audiences a clearer glimpse of who he is, however, that's not the film he wants to make and I Didn't See You There instead reveals far more than we could have ever imagined without ever for a single moment even seeing Davenport's face with any clarity. I Didn't See You There is a personal film. I Didn't See You There is a political film. I Didn't See You There is a jarringly human and boldly experimental doc feature that is, without question, one of 2022's most rewarding and humane motion pictures.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic