How a pioneering cinema season tackled disability, 40 years ago

“If our title offends your sensibilities, then you need this season.” So began the programme notes for the BFI’s groundbreaking 1981 season Carry On Cripple, which aimed to show “the extent to which the cinema propagates harmful stereotypes” about disability.

A film still from the documentary Face of Our Fear (1992). Stills from classic horror films of the 1920s and 1930s are shown pinned to a wall, while a pair of crutches are balanced against the wallUniversity of Reading Special Collections

Forty years ago, BFI Southbank – the National Film Theatre as it was then – went through a major transformation, when it started to make itself more accessible to people with disabilities.

These initial changes didn’t ‘just happen’ but had to be fought for. They came in conjunction with a pioneering film season surveying disablement in film, and at the urging of the season’s programmers, Allan T. Sutherland and Stephen Dwoskin. The idea for the season came from Sutherland, a Time Out and Sight & Sound critic with epilepsy who was involved in the then nascent disability rights movement. The United Nations had designated 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons, which made the idea easier to pitch to the NFT, but global initiatives of this kind have to play out in local situations and a film season named ‘Carry On Cripple’ wasn’t necessarily what the UN had in mind.

Sutherland had brought in Dwoskin on the strength of his film Behindert (1974), a subjective account of a thwarted relationship between a disabled man, played by Dwoskin, who had contracted polio in childhood, and a non-disabled woman, played by Carola Regnier. A New Yorker who had come to London in 1964 and built an international reputation as an underground filmmaker, Dwoskin was in the doldrums when Sutherland approached him in 1980. The distribution-exhibition collective he was associated with, The Other Cinema, had collapsed just as it was about to show his film Silent Cry (1977), and he had not made another since, after a decade during which he had averaged two per year.

A 1970s black-and-white image of Stephen Dwoskin, balancing on a car, beside his crutches, as he stands, directly engaged with the camera.University of Reading Special Collections

The focus of Carry On Cripple was mainstream fiction films, from ableist narratives to the lurid, and all were made by non-disabled filmmakers – except one, Behindert. Part of the season’s novelty was its critical treatment of the films on show. Sutherland and Dwoskin deliberately “avoided easy targets”, but showed the ways in which “the makers of fiction films use us for their own ends: to startle or scare, to evoke sympathy or admiration of a kind we can do without”. 

The programme notes find John Huston’s Moulin Rouge (1952), a biopic of Toulouse-Lautrec, to be a “sheer delight to watch” that nonetheless “reinforces the mythical relationship of cripple artist and a beautiful ‘low life’”. The season also included the first British screening of Huston’s long-suppressed documentary on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Let There Be Light (1946). The sci-fi film The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) was shown to demonstrate that when Hollywood portrays an imaginary disability, with less cultural baggage, new possibilities arise: “the film remains largely unburdened by false assumptions about the nature of disablement”.

To persuade the NFT to improve its facilities, Sutherland and Dwoskin took staff members for a walk-through. “We had to argue this fairly forcefully,” Sutherland wrote afterwards in his book Disabled We Stand, “particularly when we announced that we wanted sign language interpreters to be provided for all the English-language sound films in the season. Eventually we got our way: the NFT constructed ramps, installed an induction loop system for hearing-aid users, paid and provided facilities for interpreters (whom we nominated) and issued a detailed leaflet about access and facilities written by Steve and myself.” The leaflet went out with the monthly programme, but finding a copy has proved difficult during lockdown.
Sutherland recalls now: “It hadn’t occurred to the NFT that if they gave good information about access, disabled people would come, and they wouldn’t necessarily come to Carry On Cripple.” During the same month there was a Roger Corman season on, and so “there were lots of guys in wheelchairs turning up for Candy Stripe Nurses (1973).”

A selection of film stills from the films in the Carry On Cripple season. Left to right, top to bottom: Freaks (1932) – black-and-white image shows a group of carnival sideshow performers defiantly posing for a group photograph. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) – black-and-white image shows actor Charles Laughton in make-up as a startled Quasimodo. The Men (1950) – black-and-white image shows Marlon Brando in formal attire, using a wheelchair and holding a glass while actor Teresa Wright pours him champagne. Moulin Rouge (1952) – colour image shows non-disabled actor José Ferrer playing artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, seated in gentlemen's clothes as he talks to two women in glamorous outfits. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) – black-and-white image shows miniaturised man being pursued by a household cat. Behindert (1974) – colour image of filmmaker Stephen Dwoskin in the street facing into camera.
Freaks (1932)

For Dwoskin, co-programming the season, a public role that brought him into contact with other disabled people, coincided with the writing and making of the most accessible film of his career to that date, the autobiographical Outside In, completed and first shown – on the German TV station ZDF, his main sponsor – during 1981. Unlike the bleak Behindert, which is concentrated on a single relationship, Outside In is a frequently comic film composed of multiple interactions between Dwoskin and non-disabled people – awkward in themselves, and designed to make the non-disabled viewer feel awkward. Two scenes show him being clambered over in the cinema. Many of Dwoskin’s films inhabit the space between art cinema and artists’ moving image, making them difficult to sell – hence the need for The Other Cinema – but Outside In deserved far wider distribution than it received.

A film still from Face of Our Fear (1992). A spotlight gleams on a muscular female body builder with proudly flexed arm and braces on her legs.University of Reading Special Collections

Dwoskin did not want to inhabit the role of ‘the disabled filmmaker’, and disability was not front and centre in the films he went on to make in the 1980s. But he would return to the terrain of Carry On Cripple when Channel 4 commissioned him to make a film, Face of Our Fear, for the launch of its season ‘Disabling World’ in 1992.

An essay film about disability representation from antiquity to the modern era, Face of Our Fear includes clips from the films he and Sutherland had shown at the NFT, including Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and William Dieterle’s version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), which they had characteristically described as “a classic, both as a film and for its synthesis of almost all the dehumanising aspects attributed to the disabled by the media”. The film itself set out to find an image of disability, “not to have one made for us”.

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