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Code of the Freaks

Documentary Film Screening | February 21-24, 2021

Tekki Lomnicki in Code of the Freaks

Tekki Lomnicki in Code of the Freaks

Playing a disabled* character, no matter how unrealistic or demeaning the portrayal, may be the quickest way for an actor to win an Oscar. Code of the Freaks imagines a cinematic landscape that takes people with disabilities seriously.

Directed and produced by Salome Chasnoff, this film uses hundreds of clips spanning over 100 years of moviemaking, and a cast of disabled artists, scholars and activists, it’s a scorching critique of some of Hollywood’s most beloved characters.

This revelatory documentary investigates the power of movie imagery to shape the beliefs and behaviors of the general public toward disabled people, and of disabled people toward themselves.

Drawing its title from a line from Tod Browning’s notorious 1932 film, Freaks, Code of the Freaks debunks well-worn tropes – the miracle cure, the blind guy driving a car, the magical little people, the face-feelers, the sexless, the better off dead – and brings an entirely fresh perspective. It dares to imagine a cinematic landscape that centers the voices of disabled people.

Sensitive Content:
Opening disclaimer: The following contains images from more than a century’s worth of Hollywood cinema and therefore depicts some nudity, sexual content, and violence, particularly violence against people with disabilities.

Code of the Freaks will be available to watch on-demand from February 21-24, 2021. Once you begin watching, you have 24 hours to finish the film.

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From The Fake Beggar (1895), Of Mice and Men (1939) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) to more contemporary films like Million Dollar Baby, Forrest Gump, Avatar, Fences and Me Before You, Hollywood continues to crank out all the old disability clichés and hollow inspirational narratives – what disability activists call “inspiration porn” – that carry actors straight to the Oscars. Code of the Freaks (the title is a line from Tod Browning’s 1932 classic, Freaks) counters these formulaic entertainments with a powerful corrective: it dares to imagine a cinematic landscape that centers the voices of disabled people.

Code of the Freaks is well timed to intervene in an emerging international conversation about inclusion and representation. Social media has elevated the disability community’s critique of Hollywood’s casting decisions and exclusion of disabled people from the industry. John Krasinski’s recent insistence on casting a Deaf actor in A Quiet Place (2018) shows that some in the industry have begun to take heed. Code of the Freaks extends the conversation beyond the largely superficial issue of casting to the stories themselves.

The thirteen unprecedented voices and perspectives featured in Code of the Freaks include actor and writer Mat Fraser, best known for his role in American Horror Story; Lawrence Carter-Long, host of Turner Classics Presents - The Projected Image: A History of Disability in Film; painter and writer Riva Lehrer; novelist and playwright Susan Nussbaum; and writer Mike Ervin, whose blog Smart Ass Cripple was once dubbed by the late film critic Roger Ebert “some of the fiercest and most useful satire on the web.”

In addition to better known voices, Code of the Freaks showcases totally new on-the-ground disability activists and educators to advance a compelling argument: when it comes to disability on-screen, whether the fate of the disabled character is a miracle cure, institutionalization, death, or “overcoming,” it’s all aimed at inspiring a mainstream audience.

Filmmaker Statement:
Just about everyone in the disability community knows that the quickest way to an Oscar is to play a disabled character. Even my hairdresser observed this just the other day as we were discussing Joaquin Phoenix’s recent win for Joker. While the Academy and Hollywood audiences may find these movies and their lead actors worthy of the highest artistic honors, many in the disability community feel they can tell more accurate stories about how society, media and government view and treat disabled people—and for them, these stories are generally not so celebratory.

These are the stories we capture in Code of the Freaks. More than a decade in the making, the film grew out of writer-producer Susan Nussbaum’s desire to spark a conversation in the disability community about the portrayal of disabled characters in Hollywood movies. Years before, as a young woman, Susan became disabled suddenly as the result of an accident. At the time, she knew nothing about disability and had no models except those she’d seen in the movies, like Quasimodo, Baby Jane, and Tiny Tim. Fortunately, Susan soon discovered the disability rights movement and met real disabled people.

Yet she continued to witness and experience the harmful effects of media representation of disability. When together we made a series of short documentaries with disabled girls, I came to understand how dual consciousness – the conflict between how others saw them and how they saw themselves –affected their self-image.

To launch our conversation, the group that was to become the Code of the Freaks’ creative team hosted a salon series in community settings around Chicago, presenting montages of Hollywood clips featuring disabled characters organized in themes – blind men and women, magical creatures, the kill or cure option – and filmed the discussions.

The impassioned reactions of our audiences encouraged us to develop this film. We wanted to make a movie that would give viewers tools to better understand what they’re watching. We called upon disabled artists, writers, scholars and activists to confront the dilemma of the disabled body onscreen, and present real-life alternatives to the stock characters and tired plots that exoticize, idealize, ridicule or demonize disabled characters.

Movies have the power to shape the beliefs and behaviors of non-disabled people toward people with disabilities, and of disabled people toward themselves. Movies build astonishing fictional worlds where they hold us captive on two-hour journeys, worming their way into our psyches. They shape our expectations in ways we’re not always aware of – especially in cases where the films provide our only references for unfamiliar experiences. We love movies and it’s a powerful love that can be mesmerizing. But the consequences can be toxic. -- Salome Chasnoff, Director

Salome Chasnoff (Director, Producer) is a Chicago-based filmmaker and installation artist who maintains a collaborative social practice and exhibition career that centers the voices of under-recognized or misrepresented communities. Her work has shown across the US and internationally in film festivals, galleries, and museums including National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington DC; Theater Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank, Chicago; Frameline Film Festival, San Francisco; Creative Time’s Democracy in America; Chicago Humanities Festival; Superfest Best of the Fest, Berkeley CA; Black Harvest International Film and Video Festival; Toronto Lesbian and Gay Film and Video Festival; and the United Nations. Awards include Purpose Prize Fellow, Women’s eNews Ida B Wells Bravery in Journalism Award and 21 Leaders for the 21st Century, Chicago Foundation for Women Impact Award, and the Illinois Humanities Council Towner Award. She was the founder and director of the celebrated community media organization, Beyondmedia Education, and a founding member of the PO Box Collective, a multi-generational social practice center. Chasnoff teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she also directs the BFA in Art Education program.

*Important Statements on Disability Language*

From Bardo Arts Center: We recognize that language about disability is important in promoting inclusiveness, respecting individuality, and eliminating ableism. Bardo Arts Center uses Person-First Language when communicating about disability until an individual or group self-identifies otherwise. This film utilizes language from a disability identity standpoint, a countermovement to Person-First Language. Please read this important statement from the filmmaker regarding the use of language in Code of the Freaks.

From Salome Chasnoff (Director/Producer): "Code of the Freaks speaks from a disability community and disability cultural position. As such, the interviewees in the film use disability identity language reflective of this position: disabled people, crips, autistic, and Deaf people. This is also the language that we use in the film. While we recognize that not everyone prefers or feels comfortable with these terms, we do ask that these language choices be respected and used when speaking about Code of the Freaks and the voices it captures. To that end, we offer a gentle reminder to avoid euphemistic terms such as “differently-abled,” “people with different abilities,” “special,” or any derivation of these phrases. We point folks to a discussion with one of our interviewees, Lawrence Carter Long, on his campaign: Disabled: Just #Say the Word." 

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