As one of the few internationally recognized film journalists, I have a mixed relationship with films centered around disability. On one hand, I aspire to empower disabled creatives and to bring to light stories about disability that truly matter.
On the other hand, I tend to shy away from anything other than authentic casting and I cringe when approaching films that resort to what Stella Young defined as "inspiration porn" and I abhor the inherent institutionalized ableism so often prevalent in cinematic representations of disability whether the film is from Hollywood or the more indie world of cinema.
Fortunately, I was able to, at least for the most part, breathe a sigh of relief with award-winning filmmaker Ron Davis's latest feature documentary ParaGold. Picked up by indie distributor First Run Features after a successful festival run for a June 20th streaming and DVD release, ParaGold follows the lives of four Paralympic equestrian hopefuls - Roxy Trunnell, Rebecca Hart, David Botana, and Sydney Collier - on their quest to qualify for – and hopefully win – gold medals at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Para Dressage is the highest expression of horse training for athletes with a physical disability. Conducted under the same basic rules as Olympic-level Dressage, the athletes are classified according to the level of their disability. They must direct their horse to perform at a walk, trot, and canter, and all tests are ridden from memory and follow a prescribed pattern of precise movements. Para Dressage is the only equestrian discipline included in the Paralympic Games, the second largest sporting event in the world after the Olympic Games.
ParaGold is, just by the nature of the accomplishments of these athletes, an inspirational documentary and major kudos to Davis for steering the film away from being inspirational because of the disabilities involved but instead for the accomplishments of these athletes and their perseverance in pursuing their dreams. All four of these athletes have significant disabilities that impact how they approach the equestrian sport. ParaGold addresses these challenges honestly, however, it also does so without the usual dripping sentimentality and excessive histrionics.
Each of the four athletes is given their time to shine here, though somewhat arguably the light shines most brightly on 38-year-old equestrian vet Roxy Trunnell and Rebecca Hart, whose acute awareness that there will come a day when her disability will no longer allow her to do this sport that she loves is particularly powerful.
For the most part, ParaGold sticks to being a fairly straightforward sports doc. While the families that support these athletes are shown, Davis never really delves much into personal lives and ParaGold never really digs deeper to explore the fact that all these families are seemingly fairly strong economically, a common factor for equestrian participants disabled or no, and all of these athletes seem to have an abundance of supports. Davis, the well known director of such films as Harry and Snowman and Life in the Doghouse, chooses to focus his lens squarely on the athletes themselves and, refreshingly, also makes sure it's their voices that are front-and-center.
Having screened at such respected fests as Tryon International Film Festival, Portland Film Festival, and St. Louis International Film Festival, ParaGold is an engaging and entertaining documentary that will resonate with those who appreciate documentaries telling vital stories that matter.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic