I recently stayed up until almost 3:00am to watch a compelling 1 hour documentary film called “Rolling.” The filmmaker, Gretchen Berland, who is a physician, likes to give video cameras to people so that they can take us into their personal lives, with the intent of creating films to highlight issues critical to understanding and improving the health care system.
Berland, who is now an associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at Yale University School of Medicine, uses her past experience working for PBS on the series “Nova” and for MacNeil/Lehrer Productions to great effect in this film, which takes us inside the lives of three disabled people.
Most of the film is shot by the three participants, wheelchair-bound people of various ailments who had cameras mounted on their chairs.
Mr. Buckwalter is a clinical psychologist paralyzed at 17 in a diving accident, who is married and is the lead singer in a band called “Siggy.”
He leads an active life, depending so much on the strength of his upper arms to lift himself in and out of his chair to get into his car, to propel his manual wheelchair, and a million other tasks, that we later see how the physical strain begins to take a toll on his shoulders.
He’s then faced with choices that could threaten the level of independence he’s enjoyed for years. Buckwalter, who refers to himself as a “proud gimp,” has one of the most poignant lines in the film when he says “My blessings don’t stop it from hurting.”
Ms. Elman was once the business manager for a department at the UCLA School of Medicine, but then multiple sclerosis put her in a chair. She is the divorced mother of a daughter in medical school, and is an active participant in the group “Californians for Disability Rights.”
She is working to pass a bill named in her honor, the “V. Elman Community Living Act,” which would make it easier for the disabled to live at home.
Elman’s story shows what it’s like for a disabled person to live alone, and all the challenges and difficulties one faces.
In one segment, we see her having to drive her wheelchair down a busy street to get past a sign mounted on the sidewalk too close to a storefront bench, and in another her wheelchair begins to stall, and after dealing with all the red tape to get her chair fixed, she’s forced to go into a convalescent home for four weeks while waiting for the repairs to be completed because her independence is so intimately tied to her power chair.
Later, one of the most frightening and angering situations occurs when, while returning home from an outing using a transport van, her chair stalls again.
Because of supposed “policies,” the driver of the van cannot enter her home, so he leaves her outside, ten feet from her front door. She cannot get reception on her cellphone, so Elman sits there for hours.
It’s well after dark before a neighbor finally drives by, sees her, and helps her inside.
When watching those scenes, I felt as if I were there with her, trapped in the most torturous cage of all, one where you sit by the wayside, scared and alone, while the world passes you just a hair’s width away from your grasp, and there’s nothing you can do to reach out and touch it.
I found the situation both chilling and sickening to know that one human being could leave another in such an awful situation.
Does “policy” now trump compassion and common decency?
Lastly, there is the story of Mr. Wallengren, a husband and father of five who suffers from ALS. He’s a TV writer, and coaches his son’s youth basketball team.
Our journey with Wallengren is one in which we see firsthand the rapid progression of his disease, and witness his struggles both to cope with his own failing health, the well-meaning but often pitying attitudes of others who stumble and fail in trying to find the “right things” to say, and ultimately, we see him make the ultimate choice between whether it’s better to live as long as possible at any cost, or to escape the imprisonment of a deteriorating body when the time finally comes.
“Rolling” is a moving portrait of disability, one that I found inspiring, but one that also hit too close to home. So many of the situations are ones I could easily see myself in, and as I’ve believed for a long time now, the most difficult thing to face is oneself.
Yes, Ms. Berland created a film that exposes the gaping holes in today’s healthcare system and compels us all to do more to fix them.
But this documentary also humanizes the disabled in a way we don’t see enough of.
In a world obsessed with the pseudo-reality often portrayed on various shows where we see the lives of celebrities who live in a media-driven fantasy world, “Rolling” takes us into the lives of real people facing real issues, who are not actually fighting to overcome their own disability, but attempting to rise above the inability of the world around them to accept them as complete human beings, to treat them with the same compassion and respect with which everyone should be treated.
“Rolling” can be seen on the web at the link below. One can also leave a note to be notified when the piece is released for sale.
I highly recommend it to everyone. Even I learned from the piece, and it left me even more determined to do whatever I can to help make the world a better, more accepting place, for all.
Be careful, or it might do the same for you.
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