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Interview by Amaya Bañuelos Marco

The beautiful and urgent documentary I Didn’t See You There, is playing at Edinburgh this weekend as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. The film, which premiered in Sundance earlier this year, is an incredible meditation on the politics of looking, being looked at, and reframing that gaze through a rarely seen vantage point. The film’s title refers to the apologetic phrase that Reid Davenport constantly hears when he finds his way blocked; and perfectly exemplifies the lack of visibility of people with lived experiences of disability. We caught up with the director before the Scottish premiere of his film.

Question: I Didn’t See You There is your first feature length documentary, and it has already received three awards: best Directing Award at Sundance Film Festival as well as best documentary Award at San Francisco International Film Festival and Grand Jury Award at Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. The film has been screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest and it’s also screening at EIFF this weekend. How does it feel to be recognised with these awards and what has been your experience travelling with your film across these festivals?

Reid Davenport: Just a quick correction; for San Francisco it was specifically for Bay Area documentaries, so we won the Best Documentary Award for the Bay Area which was fantastic. I think it is similar to how I feel about the general reception of the film which is that people take something away from it. It’s not a very traditional documentary. So, it is really great to get these awards to hear the reception of different audiences.

Q: Are you excited to see the reaction of Edinburgh’s audiences?

RD: Oh, absolutely! Unfortunately, I didn’t have the chance to go to Sheffield, so this will be the first time I see the film outside of the US.

Q: This is an exceptional film for so many different reasons. It’s a strong personal narrative where you allow us to partially experience navigating urban spaces as a wheelchair user through compelling camerawork; but you also offer us an incredible insight into life as an artist and how to manage that within your own family relationships. In a moment of the film, in a conversation with your mother, you say “I hope this is my last personal film”. As a filmmaker what stories/lives rather than your own are you interested in telling and what are the challenges you face to make it happen?

RD: Well, I think that, first, disability is not seen politically, and there are a myriad of political issues that continue to marginalise disability. So, I really want to make films about disability issues and the people who can’t embody those political issues. There are so many issues that are absent from the mainstream conversations that I would like to attempt to bring more attention to.

Q: I wonder how do you feel about your responsibility as a disabled filmmaker; do you feel a weight on you to tell these stories because it relates to your life or do you feel that actually is a privilege that you can tell these stories from your perspective and that we are all going to gain from watching your films, learning more from your perspective?

RD: I would say it is both. It is a privilege to be able to tell these stories but there is also this sense of urgency that people need to hear these stories. So, I think I am following the path of both the people who have come before me, who really took it upon themselves to bring change, and my contemporaries. Again, I won’t say that I’m bringing change, but I would like to try.

Q: The centre of the story revolves around your mediation on spectacle, being looked at, and being deemed invisible by society. You reflect on all these while observing a circus tent you see being set up next to your home in Oakland. This reminds you of your own hometown in Bethel, Connecticut, which was also P.T. Barnum’s birthplace, a showman and an exploitative circus owner who also included freak shows. Was the ableist legacy of the freak show a topic you wanted to explore before making this film?

RD: It was definitely on my mind before making the film, specifically, how it related to my work. My work… the audience is liberal progressive and there are a lot of physical and occupational therapists’ programmes using my work, and I was wondering if, actually, those characteristics are not why those people are interested or it’s actually another form of freakery. So, I had been wondering about it for a while and then, I know it sounds unbelievable, but the circus tent appeared.

Q: In our Cinetopia podcast back in June, we reviewed your film as part of Sheffield Doc/Fest. We then commented on how impressed we were with the film’s camerawork, the different ways you position the camera. There are very poetic moments but also distressing ones. One particular moment I recall is when you’re going through zebra crossings in a lot of traffic and the camerawork and editing are very fast and frenetic. It really conveys the difficulties and dangers of moving around on a wheelchair, particularly in an urban space dominated by cars. We were also very interested in the editing work of this film. Your editor is Todd Chandler, who is also a director, how did this collaboration come to be?

RD: Yes, it was really beautiful. We initially met through a fellowship programme at the Points North Institute in 2020. Todd was an alumnus of the program and producer Keith Wilson and I were participating in it that year. When we were editing together, it became really important for me to trust him as a person and to allow me to be vulnerable. That wasn’t a given, but he definitely had the right personality to edit this film.

Q: Prior to this feature length documentary, you’ve made a number of short documentary films on different aspects of disability and society. Your film-based movement Through My Lens project raises awareness of the perspectives of students with disabilities by teaching them to express themselves through video. Is this still going on?

RD: It’s not through that anymore but we are trying to use I Didn’t See You There as a jumping off point to show young people’s disabilities that they don’t need to overcome their disability to make art, that they can use their disability to make art.

Q: How did you become interested in film and documentary more specifically and what attracts you of this medium?

RD: Actually, it’s kind of weird being here because this is my first time in Europe since I made my very first film ten years ago. So, I was supposed to study abroad during college, but I told them I was on a wheelchair and they basically said “don’t come”. But I came to Europe with a camera, shot my first film, I felt the story was urgent and that I had to tell it visually. I just really loved making the film and I wanted to make more so I went back to film school and here I am.

Q: I’m very curious to hear about your view of Edinburgh; is it welcoming for a wheelchair user compared to your home in Oakland?

RD: I have only been here for about 40 hours. It’s feasible to get around. Actually I had several incidents, people being really condescending to me which doesn’t quite happen as much in the US; but also 90% of the people are really polite and generous. It’s definitely a mixed bag.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about any projects that you have underway or that you are currently developing?

RD: Sure, I am working on a film about assisted suicide and how this can lead to premature death for disabled people.

Interview carried out by Amaya Bañuelos Marco. The interview was held in person in Edinburgh. It has been edited and condensed.