CODE OF THE FREAKS Interview — Conversation with Alyson Patsavas

Editor’s Note:  Read the related Picture This Post story —CODE OF THE FREAKS Review — A Long Way To Go

Alyson Patsavas

Art, dance, theater, film and more--- disabled activists are infusing artistic and cultural offerings with a view born of what some term disability culture.  Now making the rounds in screenings, the producers of Code of the Freaks also offer a more comprehensive educational program based on their expertise in Disability Studies.  Here, Picture This Post (PTP) speaks with Alyson Patsavis (AP), one of the producers of the film Code of the Freaks, a powerful salvo in the battle to take on Hollywood stereotypes of disability, about Code of the Freaks and disability culture in general.

(PTP) How and why did Code of the Freaks come about?

(AP) The film was born and sustained somewhere between the intimacies of hate-watching bad disability characterizations and sharing the effects that such cemented narratives have on our lives and the lives of other disabled people.

Code of the Freaks tries, at least, to give space to the complexities of critiques that emerge from a disability culture sensibility that is steeped in snark, playfulness, and that desire to see the world otherwise. The film uses montages to enact what Carrie Sandahl has outlined in her scholarship as cripping or exposing the assumptions of ablebodiedness in order to remake them. We layer examples of some of the narrative tropes that we follow in order to show how pervasive they are in order to, through the conversations and critiques that unfold, hopefully remake the narrative landscape. We try to show what we want to see: a cast full of disabled people, writers and producers with disabilities who bring a history of disability activism and critique into our work. We don’t show consensus but the heterogeneity of the community. But some of this remaking work will necessarily need to be done by other media makers.

What is disability culture  and how do you feel Code of the Freaks is a window into disability culture? 

There are lots of disability cultures. Some things are, of course, shared across generational and geographic divides (the politic of addressing ableism, the cultivation of experiential knowledge as the basis of critique and community building, etc) but there are also unique aesthetics, forms of humor, and community building tactics that may excitingly differ depending context. 

Maybe this is an aspirational statement as much as anything, but the more disability culture grows and builds sustainable organizing tactics within communities around the world, the more we will see variations in what disability cultures are and can be.

Whom do you imagine as the primary audience for Code of the Freaks?

We have always imagined multiple audiences for the film. It has always had an educational focus. The project has been partly about making a teaching tool that we wish we had. It covers a lot of ground in laying out the representational landscape, and in doing so, allows us to get more quickly into work created by and for disabled audiences within our courses (by helping to make the larger dominant cultural context). 

And, of course, we wanted to make something that other disabled people, disabled activists and audiences more broadly could connect with. So much media is made by non-disabled people, for non-disabled people. While part of the work Code of the Freaks does is lay out the representational landscape for a non-disabled audience who hasn’t thought much about disability representations, we also hope that some of the humor within the film finds its audience in disabled people. We hope that there remains stuff just for disabled people in Code of the Freaks – or stuff that at least disabled audiences respond to or connect with in ways that reach out to them uniquely.

Have you seen ways that recent political events affected the reception of the film?

I would like to think that the cultural conversation around investments in diversity, equity, and inclusion have created a context in which audiences may be more receptive to a film like ours. We’ve had a few opportunities to screen the film to folks looking to have conversations about inclusion and diversity, whether it’s in their non-profit organization or in school districts. These have been really rewarding conversations because the folks at these screenings come with a particularly eye into the film and ask really wonderful questions about how to effect change based on the material our film covers. 

At our last screening we had a lovely question about teaching acceptance to children and whether we had resources for educators looking to support young people in understanding disability issues. One of the coolest things about the question was that other audience members chimed in when I made reference to a resource but the specific name escaped me. This was a bit of a dream scenario, actually: Our film screening brings together people from within the disability community and those who are allies. This created an opportunity of collective knowledge and resource sharing that exceeded us as filmmakers. This is, in some ways, what disability culture does simply by virtue of creating space where folks can be together.

Has your team had any conversations with what might be called Hollywood Insiders about the ideas presented in Code of the Freaks?

We have not had any conversations with Hollywood Insiders, though the conversation about disability representation has increasingly found its way into the mainstream through the work of dedicated disabled activists and social media activism aimed at raising awareness of some of the issues that our film tracks and aimed at addressing the importance of hiring disabled actors.

 I don’t think any of us would turn down a call to have these conversations from Hollywood folks, but I think our point of intervention is somewhere different: Our goal was to give folks a tool to view disability representation differently, and then to build spaces where disabled artists and culture makers can create new work. In this sense, Hollywood films were also partly a vehicle for us to talk about dominant cultural representations or ideas about disability more generally.  

Editor’s Note:  Read the related Picture This Post story —CODE OF THE FREAKS Review — A Long Way To Go

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