Oakland-Made Documentary ‘I Didn’t See You There’ Puts Disability in a Political Lens

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A light skinned man with sunglasses smiles.
Documentary filmmaker Reid Davenport’s ‘I Didn’t See You There’ has its world premiere at Sundance on Jan. 24. (Daniel Chávez-Ontiveros)

Road movies are an iconic American genre, powered by the rush of freedom, independence and possibility. Reid Davenport might laugh at being compared to L.A. mavericks Dennis Hooper or Monte Hellman—he’d prefer the late, great Bay Area documentary filmmaker Marlon Riggs—but his breakthrough feature doc, I Didn’t See You There, fiercely follows in a grand tradition.

Davenport’s wheels aren’t affixed to a Harley or a GTO but to a chair. As is his camera, most of the time, giving viewers an unexpectedly beautiful view of the abstract grain and pattern of BART stations, sidewalks and streets—as well as the perspective of a person with a disability navigating his way around the Bay Area.

The filmmaker informs us at the outset of I Didn’t See You There that he doesn’t plan to appear onscreen. It’s an act of withholding that creates dramatic suspense (we yearn to see what we can’t) but Davenport had an altogether different goal in mind.

“It wasn’t so much a cinematic consideration as a statement that I constantly see in documentary films and in the media: disabled people are seen but not heard,” he explains in a Zoom interview from his Brooklyn apartment, where he recently moved after five years in Oakland. “I wanted to completely lift that on its head, and try to invite people into an approximation of my experience.”

Davenport’s appearance in his short films, made during and after his MFA studies in Stanford’s vaunted documentary filmmaking program, was cathartic. He also appears (eventually) in the short Meet the Artist video he recorded for the Sundance Film Festival world premiere of I Didn’t See You There.

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With all its smooth outdoor tracking shots, the film portrays someone whose daily life requires actively pushing out into the world. Davenport wants us to experience this the way a person with a disability does, of course, but many have had the realization that the world doesn’t come to us, and we have to initiate connections.

“I’m very interested in the question of what seems to be unique to me versus what seems to be universal, and that’s what made me make the film,” Davenport says.

Reflection of circus tent and person in wheelchair in window
Still from ‘I Didn’t See You There.’

I Didn’t See You There debuts Monday, Jan. 24 in the U.S. documentary category in the entirely online festival, which begins today. Other Sundance docs by Bay Area filmmakers include Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, about a French couple who studied volcanoes, and Meg Smaker’s Jihad Rehab, which follows four former Al Qaeda members assimilating into Saudi society. Free Chol Soo Lee, by L.A. filmmakers Julie Ha and Eugene Yi, revisits the saga of a Korean immigrant wrongfully convicted of a 1973 murder in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

2020’s Sundance edition featured local filmmakers Nicole Newnham and Jim Lebrecht’s Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (on Netflix, and highly recommended), which integrated personal experience with a landmark 1970s civil rights campaign. In contrast, I Didn’t See You There is primarily experiential and occasionally experimental, largely eschewing information and history in favor of confronting mainstream assumptions and attitudes in both explicit and implicit ways.

“I hope it implicates the viewer,” Davenport declares, though he needn’t worry. Take the seemingly prosaic scene where he does a 360 on an Oakland street corner, filming the panorama. A passerby asks if Davenport needs help (or possibly directions) and is politely turned down. Davenport’s independence has been well-established by this point, but I confess that I identified with what I perceived as a helpful stranger.

The filmmaker, however, says that he viewed the would-be Good Samaritan as “hyperaware and a nuisance.” “Independence is kind of an overused charm that I think is used for cosmetic purposes rather than the wellbeing of disabled people,” Davenport says. “Your action is spurred by the notion that I am helpless.”

Davenport takes on another not-quite-extinct attitude in I Didn’t See You There, that people with disabilities are freaks. His musings are inspired by the appearance of a circus tent in his Oakland neighborhood, and the kind of acts once presented in such places of “amusement” by the likes of P.T. Barnum. The filmmaker and “the greatest showman” were both born in Bethel, Connecticut, which is anything but a point of pride for Davenport.

The accomplishment of I Didn’t See You There lies in how effectively Davenport and editor Todd Chandler interweave the filmmaker’s personal life with his social-issue concerns, to the point where any distinction evaporates.

“Quite frankly,” Davenport says, “there is a dearth of work that puts disability in a political lens, and that’s what you need to start seeing disability as a political identity of marginalized people.”

This is where Davenport invokes Riggs, the gay, Black, Oakland director of the landmark docs Ethnic Notions, Color Adjustment and Tongues Untied (his most personal and political work), and who died of AIDS in 1994.

“After I made my first film, which was about access, I wanted to move away from disability as a focal point and then [eventually] go back,” Davenport says. “I always felt very conflicted about that, because I didn’t want to be pigeonholed and I didn’t want to be that guy who uses what is in front of him only. I was talking to a professor about this and she mentioned Marlon Riggs, and it completely changed the way I saw myself because, unbeknownst to her, he’s one of my favorite filmmakers. I don’t see any of his work as selfish or derivative or obvious.”

His next film will be an examination of assisted suicide through a disability lens, that acknowledges (in Davenport’s words) “the devaluation of disabled lives.” Davenport has arrived on the scene, and he’s putting the pedal to the metal.