How’s Your News is the best movie you’ll probably never see.
I’d been wanting to see it for months (ever since reading this MetaFilter thread), but never expected to do so. The film had received critical acclaim at the few festivals that showed it (and won the audience award at the Comedia festival in Montreal), but there were no plans for widespread (or even limited) release. Luckily, I happened to skim a local weekly’s movie listings just in time to discover that it was playing in Seattle’s aptly-named Little Theater for four days only. I had the great fortune to catch the premier last night, and am pleased to report that my eager anticipation was entirely justified.
The documentary follows five adults with mental and physical disabilities as they travel across America in a RV and interview everyday folks for a show called How’s Your News? Ronnie Simonsen and Susan Harrington are the two most active reporters, conversing with everyone from homeless men to women at grocery stores. Both conduct their interviews in idiosyncatic ways: Ronnie steers almost every conversation to the celebrities he is obsessed with; Susan is prone to bursting into song and ends every segment with a well-rehearsed sign-off. Sean Costello, who has downs syndrome, also speaks to a variety of people.
The other two members of the How’s Your News cast are unable to speak intelligibly, but conduct interviews all the same. A speech impediment renders everything Robert Bird says as gibberish, but he can communicate quite effectively through written notes and by accompanying his “words” with gesticulation. Larry Perry has severe spastic cerebral palsy and can neither walk nor speak, but is able to hold a microphone and interview subjects by allowing them to talk freeform.
The interactions between the How’s Your News team and the general public are always interesting, sometime awkward and frequently hilarious. The reactions to Bird’s gibberish-talk are especially varied and telling: some vainly ask him to repeat himself in an effort to understand, others respond with generic uh-huhs and okays, and some “play along” by guessing at the questions he might be asking and gamely providing complete replies (“I’m doing great. How are you?”).
It’s hard to read about this movie and not think the whole thing smacks of exploitation. The director, Arthur Bradford, addresses this concern right on the film’s home page:
All of the people associated with How’s Your News?, including the reporters and their families, are extremely proud of the work which has been put into this movie. The How’s Your News? reporters may not look, act, or speak like traditional news reporters, and the news which they gather may not be traditional news, but we stand by it all the same. In fact, we feel that to deny these reporters the chance to express themselves freely, travel the country, and communicate with the people they meet would be a real shame.What’s even more shameful, in my opinion, is that there are a plethora of well-promoted fictional movies about developmentally disabled people (Forrest Gump, i am sam, The Other Sister, etc.), but a movie showing actual developmentally disabled people winds up with no distribution whatsoever.
Furthermore, I have long felt that Hollywood’s practice of lionizing the developmentally disabled does more harm than good. While some films (notably Rain Man and Who’s Eating Gilbert Grape) portray those with disabilities as everyday people with everyday lives, many others reflexively elevate their protagonists to the status of “hero” for having been born with a handicap. The problem with such aggrandizement is that it prevents us from relating to the characters as fellow human beings; we are instead urged to look upon them as role models and metaphors. Worse still, we are admonished for laughing at (or even with) anything they do, because to do so would be “insensitive”. In short, filmmakers try to have it both ways: they want to present the disabled as human (or, in some cases, the very essence of humanity), but they also insist that we not treat them as such.
But humans are funny creatures. The right to laugh, and the risk of being laughed at, comes with the territory regardless of who you are. To disallow this very fundamental interaction is tantamount to dividing us into camps. How’s Your News does an excellent job of avoiding this “us” and “them” demarcation, and you feel like you’re watching a home movie made by friends.
It’s exhilarating to see how much fun the cast is having throughtout the film. Perhaps it’s all the shows and movies that insist on depicting life as a disabled person as a deadly serious enterprise, or perhaps reality television has conditioned us to expect people on camera to be humiliated and degraded, but How’s Your News?, just by showing folks enjoying themselves, comes across as remarkably upbeat and refreshing. At one point during an interview, Sean Costello tells his subject “This [trip] is my dream. What’s your dream?” and everyone — the interviewee and the audience — finds themselves stumped by the question and envious of the asker.
Halfway through the travelogue the crew is seen playing Scrabble in the RV. The tiles have been placed onto the board any-old-way — upside down and sideways — and it’s unclear if they are even making real words. But who cares? They’re determined to have a good time, and they don’t seem to mind if they have to break the rules to do so.
If you live in Seattle, you still have three days to see “How’s Your News” at the Little Theater; if you live anywhere else, keep checking their webpage — maybe you’ll luck out. There are a few video clips from the movie available over yonder (scroll to the bottom of the page), but you will need Quicktime to view them. The “How’s Your News” crew was also featured on “This American Life” earlier this year; you can hear that segment here