Sandra Alland

Remembering the Now: Documentation and Invention in Queer and Trans Disabled Film

(listen to the selection, read by the author)

Instead of living in the moment or dreaming the future, marginalized artists have to write our own history as it’s happening. If we don’t want our communities to be forgotten, we face the burden of simultaneous creation and documentation, often in already-challenging circumstances.

Last year I composed a text-audio essay for Imaginary Safe House (HA&L / Frog Hollow Press), piecing together recent disabled and queer history in Toronto/Tkaronto poetry. It was a small archival offering, to supplement rare books like Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability. Because such histories aren’t positioned as significant in mainstream arts, they’re vital breadcrumbs for future generations.

Film has additional barriers to inclusive archiving. More expensive and training-heavy than poetry, filmmaking’s uber-capitalist structure also keeps a stranglehold on distribution. And film has a long tradition of privileged people play-acting the rest of us. As discussed in Disclosure, Sam Feder’s 2020 documentary about trans representation, parts of our very identities are shaped through watching harmful on-screen “impersonations.” 

Resorting to self-producing and archiving authentic representation sometimes burns us out – but it can also lead to exciting new forms of collective self-documenting. I started DIY filmmaking in 2006, with a borrowed handycam and Movie Maker, to create a multimedia extension to my poetry book, Blissful Times. I later graduated to an “unofficially obtained” version of Final Cut, with no idea how to use it and beautiful queer comrades who taught me the basics. Like many people, I worked with cheap mics and cameras not meant for filmmaking. I edited in pain, in programs incompatible with voice dictation software. It felt miraculous when I rendered and exported something watchable.

I made captions by creating individual “title cards” for each line of text, slowly learning the best formatting from Deaf colleagues and watching hundreds of films. I taught myself audio description (AD), and took part in collaborative projects to ensure it was sensitive to gender, class and race. Through community sharing, I learned and taught skills none of us were meant to have. 

Working this way, we discovered things not on the syllabus at art school. I noticed the unique vitality and visuals brought to the medium by those creating with less money and equipment, formal education, support from their families of origin – and in many cases less dexterity, energy or (literal) vision.

Over the years, I made documentaries about queer and trans disabled artists in Scotland. I developed curatorial expertise by organizing screenings, writing reviews, watching and reading endlessly about LGBTQIA2S+ disabled film. And while documentation can be an exhausting distraction from (other kinds of) creation – it’s also thrilling. Only recently did it become possible for more of us to fight our historical erasure in this way.

The mid-2000s to the mid-2010s was an amazing time for DIY film and video. The oughts saw laptops, cameras, phones and software become cheaper, lighter, more widely-available and user-friendly. YouTube’s birth in 2005, and the simultaneous expansion of Internet access, provided free(ish) distribution and knowledge. More skint queer disabled people, and those who couldn’t access university classrooms, could suddenly self-teach and distribute. We could keep track of what our communities were experiencing and creating.

Our audiences could find us, too. In addition to San Francisco’s long-running Superfest and LDAF’s London Disability Film Festival, community-led Oska Bright Learning Disabled Film Festival started in Brighton in 2004, and ReelAbilities in New York in 2007. Many queer and trans disabled people were plugged into Sins Invalid, founded by/for QTBIPOC on the west coast of Turtle Island in 2005. From 2007, Berlin’s Entzaubert Queer DIY Uncommercial Film Festival focused on skills sharing and making (captioned) films. 

Whatever the genre, a trans and queer disabled aesthetic revels in the documentation of our non-normative bodies, voices, languages, thinking – in terms of both gender variance/non-conformity and disability. It insists on the specifics of our experiences, refusing assumptions and translation to “universality.” It sets the pace slower, looks and listens differently (or not at all). Sometimes we shoot from a lower angle or with a jerky camera, use a purposefully squint framing, pay unusual attention to access. We document ourselves with theatrical flair, saying “this is my normal”; a touch of glitter, magic, slant.

In my film-poem Able (2009), I addressed which bodyminds get to be “able” (and the sheer number of stairs in Edinburgh) through disjointed sound poetry and stop-motion. More recently, I collaborated with Ania Urbanowska on experimental films featuring queer and genderqueer British Sign Language poets, including Bea Webster and DL Williams. Deaf, neurodivergent, ill and disabled poetry embraces multiple significations: signed and spoken languages, text, stimming, vocalizations, and other verbal and non-verbal languages of breath and body. Film-poems are essential to recording poetry that isn’t text-based, and to any disabled writer who can’t get into or otherwise access performance spaces. But film-poems can also move beyond a performance document into a form of filmic storytelling all their own. 

In 2004, South African Shelley Barry created the triptych Whole: A Trinity of Being. Mainly from the perspective of the perfect dolly (a wheelchair), Whole is a visually and aurally poetic document of the filmmaker’s relationship with her body and voice after a shooting. The second piece, voice/over, is a stunning ode to queer disabled POC sensuality. Barry skilfully blends spoken and hand-typed text with purposefully-blurred sepia close-ups of her mouth and scars/holes. Later, she moves to clear shots of a typewriter and the insertion of her metal tracheostomy tube. The switch from silence, to echoey sounds of falling script pages, to Barry’s assisted/mechanical breath, is spellbinding. 

Through recording our histories in non-voyeuristic ways, we change the rules of documentation. Artistic director Patty Berne beautifully directed the documentary Sins Invalid: An Unshamed Claim to Beauty in the Face of Invisibility (2017). Back in 2010, Berne wrote, read and directed The Chili Story, with drawings by E Russian. An example of excellent autobiographical storytelling, the film celebrates the sometimes unique nature of disabled desire and hotness. Berne’s narrative chooses radical sexual pleasure over learned bodily shame, with disabled people as the intended audience. And, though it’s a “true” story of a taboo subject, Berne’s style and pacing flow like fiction.

The late Katherine Araniello is pivotal to UK disabled film history. Like Berne, Araniello was a skilled archivist of radical performance, and had a penchant for bizarre shorts aimed at disabled audiences. Amazing Art, Araniello’s co-production with deaf artist Aaron Williamson (Disabled Avant-Garde, 2009), relies heavily on inspiration tropes intimately familiar to disabled people – but it’s not necessarily clear as mockumentary to others. This tension makes the film as disturbing and moving as it is funny. Araniello’s very act of documentation is sometimes only decipherable to insiders. Her absurd Telekinesis (2013), subtitled “mind control to enrich the quality of life for our government,” obscurely references the Tory decimation of disability rights.

Thirza Cuthand, of Plains Cree and Scots descent and member of Little Pine First Nation, documents personal experience mixed with/against history. In Madness in Four Actions (2008), she uses footage from The Miracle Worker (1979), connecting the institutional abuse of deafblind Helen Keller with the bipolar disorder diagnoses of actress Patty Duke – and herself. Looped clips of Duke/Keller being restrained and struck are overlaid with text about abuses in psychiatry, including connections between Nazis and Canada’s mental health system. Like Araniello, Cuthand also explodes into the queer fantastical; films include an all-lesbian government census, vampires, and Indigenous futurity after settlers move to Mars.

Things grew even more vibrant by the late 2010s, with next-generation work like Tourmaline’s jaw-dropping docu-dreamscape Atlantic is a Sea of Bones (2017). Through the life of Egypt LaBeija, Tourmaline traces links between systemic violence against Black queer and trans life and the ongoing AIDS epidemic. Like others mentioned here, her work reflects concern with not just representation but also style, ethos, invention.

Despite recent increases in digital poverty and software prices, and danger from Covid-19, I’m confident qrips (queer crips) will continue to subvert, surpass and redefine both normative and community aesthetics. I hope these filmmakers, and many others who’ve been bursting/limping/rolling onto the screen since the turn of the century, will be recorded in the canons of history. Not as an aside, but as an integral part of film development and movements in documentary, docu-hybrid and beyond-document.

As for me, I remain torn between feeling compelled to archive, and revelling in the joy of it. And I’ll always wonder what it would be like to not carry this responsibility, despite its positive contribution to our communities and to filmmaking.

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Selected further watching from featured filmmakers:

  • Follow Me On My Journey To Die (2009), Katherine Araniello: a searing and funny critique of ableist body politics and attitudes to assisted suicide.
  • Sight (2012), Thirza Cuthand: a personal document artfully transformed into a compelling philosophical monologue about Cuthand’s own temporary blindness and the phenomenon of self-blinding.
  • The Personal Things (2016), Tourmaline: an insightful docu-animation featuring a slice of Miss Major’s life.

“Disability Futures in the Arts” is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts/Conseil des arts du Canada.Logo for the Canada Council for the Arts/onseil des arts du Canada

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About the Author

Sandra Alland is a Glasgow-based filmmaker, writer and interdisciplinary artist. They’ve recently made work/programming for Disability Arts Online, British Council, Oska Bright Film Festival, BFI Flare, The Deaf Poets Society, The Bi-ble V. II (Monstrous Regiment), and Imaginary Safe House (Frog Hollow/HA&L). Recent screenings include Queer City Cinema (Regina), Deaffest (Wolverhampton), TransLations Seattle Transgender Film Festival, and Entr’2 Marches (Cannes). San is co-editor of Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back, and has published three poetry collections. Their new short story chapbook/audiobook is Anything Not Measurable Is Not Real (Proper Tales Press). Visit her website at: