‘How can she claim to be deaf if she doesn’t use sign language?’
‘I’m glad this film has articulated the thoughts in my mind.’
‘Some parts of the film were technically flawed – there were blurred bits, spelling mistakes and in some parts the audio was gone too.’
‘It is a great film, but you know, there was no need for closed captions. It’s like you’re undermining the audience’s intelligence.’
The audience responses to Accsex, my debut 52-minute documentary film, have been varied. The film explores normative notions of beauty, body, sexuality and ability through the narratives of four women who happen to be persons with disabilities. Since its first public screening in September 2013, the film has been welcomed at a variety of avenues including festivals, public and organizational screenings, colleges, film clubs and cafes.
Indeed, the most interesting part of making any film is watching it with diverse audiences later. One begins to see the various dimensions of one’s work with new audience responses. These responses have certainly been a huge part of how my perspective has been strengthened even after making Accsex. I have defended my choices of certain images or approaches, understood technical gaps in the film and been driven to think about questions it leaves unexplored.
A standard question I’m asked is what I was trying to accomplish by making this film. Did I want to influence people’s personal opinions about the ideal body, sexuality, and most importantly, what a disabled person can and cannot do? Did I want to express my own dilemmas about my perceived incompleteness? Did the film stem out of childhood experiences of seeing how my parents were perceived as an able-bodied and disabled couple?
To me, filmmaking is an art I am yet to understand completely. It is something I use to express myself and talk about things that matter to me. In the process, it amplifies the voices of some wonderful people who often exist just a little beyond our comfort zones. No one needs saving; my role is to bring in the little technical knowledge and perspective I have to tell these stories with due dignity and respect.
The journey of making Accsex was just as exciting and challenging as the post-screening discussions have been. I have experienced moments of transformation as an individual which have allowed me to appreciate the magnificent shades that lie between the dichotomies of ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’. They manifested themselves as little arguments in my head, where I learnt new ideas, unlearned some old ones and found what worked for me.
One of the many questions I had included in my interviews revealed my own assumptions about disability and sexuality. Conversations with the storytellers Abha, Kanti, Natasha and Sonali brought to my notice that while the fear of sexual, psychological and physical violence exists, it is not the only lens through which they view their sexual selves. There is no doubt that persons with disabilities – women, children, queer people and those with psycho-social disabilities – are often at the receiving end of horrific forms of violence. However, to fit the sexual experiences of all persons with disabilities under this umbrella leads to the typical protectionist, ‘infantilising’ tendency that believes that all disabled people, especially women and children, need to be protected from sexual predators. It believes that they are incapable of grasping the complexities of sex and deems them incapable of consent or agency. Thus, whether it is sexuality education, a film or a book, any conversation about the sexuality of persons with disabilities must discuss agency and desire in the same breath as biological and medical models or violence.
The end credit sequence of Accsex features the four storytellers expressing themselves as ‘beautiful’ and ‘sexy’ in a series of photographs and clips. In what I believe was the fun-est part of the entire shoot, Sonali and her partner’s ways of togetherness reminded me of Judith Butler’s idea of sexuality as performance. Sonali mentions in the film that she and her partner prefer physical contact over eye contact to express themselves romantically because they are both blind, something we observed when we asked all storytellers to ‘be sexy’ for the camera. While Abha, Kanti and Natasha oozed sensuousness through their eyes, body movements and lips, Sonali and her partner held hands, talked and laughed. It is possible that they are private people and hence did not express themselves outright. It is also possible that they play out typical roles as man and woman in the relationship, in the words they employ to ‘be sexy’. Nonetheless, I believe this might have been a rupture in my own expectations from Sonali’s photoshoot. I had expected an expression of sexuality that looked like the ‘sexy’ I knew.
In one of the many engaging post-screening discussions, I was asked the following question:
‘The physically disabled body’s ability to be sexual is often understood to dwell within the ‘able’ mind. How do you think this impacts the way we see the sexuality of people with psycho-social disabilities?’
Is the mind indeed the centre of love and sexual desire? In believing so, do we justify our assumptions of a person with psycho-social or intellectual disabilities as incapable of independent decisions regarding the same? Where do agency and consent stand with respect to persons who have intellectual disabilities? Thinking about these questions has revitalized some of my thoughts from the time I made Accsex. I have no answers, and very little reading of what work has been done to explore them. But I do look to engage with some of these ideas in another film at a later stage.
Accsex has possibly brought forth the idea that there is a whole range of multiple identities between watertight compartments of able and disabled, sexual and asexual, male and female; that each one of us has the right to be who we are and the capability, whether with assistance or without, to appreciate and express ourselves. If I were to look at it from the point of view of ‘impact’, I’d say it neither intended to change nor has changed mind-sets about disability and sexuality. What it has possibly done is sow a thought; a thought that holds the potential to become a heated discussion inside the head of every viewer. And in the future, it shall possibly create avenues for more films and writing that refute or take forward what the film says.
Until then, I will continue to smile ear to ear every time I hear this at the end of a film screening.
‘It seemed like we had so many things in common. They were… you know…just like us.’