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Without Pity: A Film About Abilities (1996)

Narrated by: Christopher Reeve

Reviewed by Judy Thomas

"Nearly 50 million people in America have some form of disability. From birth, accident, or disease, the disabled have become the largest minority group in the United States, a minority group that anyone might join." These are the thought-provoking words that introduce Without Pity: A Film About Abilities. Debuting Tuesday, October 8, 1996, this quietly powerful documentary from HBO's America Undercover series went on to win an Emmy for "Outstanding Informational Special" that year.

Christopher Reeve narrated the one-hour film but did not appear on camera, saying that he didn't want his presence to distract from the compelling stories of the disabled individuals who are profiled here. Without Pity was produced, written and directed by Michael Mierendorf, whose previous America Undercover documentaries for HBO include 1993's Multiple Personalities: The Search for Deadly Memories and 1991's Losing It All: The Reality of Alzheimer's Disease.

The people profiled in Without Pity: A Film About Abilities represent a cross-section of disabled individuals struggling against daunting obstacles to gain control of their lives. An HBO publicity release describes them as follows:

Samantha -- Disabled by cerebral palsy since birth, Samantha was married to Jay (who is not disabled) in an idyllic outdoor ceremony. Living in a small apartment, Samantha studies for a communications degree, and articulates through a special computer that translates her typed words into spoken sounds. Her biggest goal is to be a mother -- a goal she fulfills. Unfortunately, partly as a result of the strain of caring for both wife and daughter, Jay eventually separates from Samantha, who moves in with her mother. The couple has since worked out a custody arrangement for their daughter.

Charlie Charlie -- Before his birth, Charlie's mom talked of expecting a "perfect child" -- but Charlie was born with no arms, no legs, and no explanations from the doctors as to why it happened. Now six years old, Charlie is an intelligent, well-adapted boy. He also attends school in a special wheelchair, and has been accepted as "just another kid" by his schoolmates.

Frank -- Institutionalized by his father for 40 years, Frank is a 74-year-old person with cerebral palsy who now lives alone in a small town outside Denver, and is a familiar sight on the local streets as he moves around in a wheelchair. Remembering his life at the Colorado Home for the Mentally Defective, Frank (who was labeled mentally incompetent) never understood why he was put away, and recalls leaving against his father's wishes. Anna, a former employee of the home who helped relocate Frank years ago, is seen paying her former patient a visit; Frank panics at first, thinking she's come to return him to the institution.

Josh -- Eight months ago, 25-year-old Josh was studying for career in environmental protection when a motorcycle accident "changed everything." Now a quadriplegic who lives with his sister, Josh's frustration is clear. In addition to losing his self-sufficiency, Josh also lost his girlfriend, with whom he had hoped to build a life and family. To get through the day, Josh admits, "I have to put on a facade for people... If I had to let out the anger inside, nobody would want to be around me." Josh's struggles mirror those of the narrator, who says, poignantly, "In one fateful moment, a young man's destiny changed. And he cannot imagine his life ahead. His mind and spirit suffer along with his body. It is the incomprehensible loss of spinal cord injury." However, Josh goes on to get his degree.

Andrew -- At a trade show unveiling new products for the disabled, a father puts his brain-damaged son Andrew in a small electric car controlled by buttons. As his son delightedly takes a turn around the floor, the father cries in seeing the intense joy in his son's face.

Paul -- Paul was disabled by polio at age five. Now 49, he's a university professor who teaches the history and social problems of the disabled. As Paul teaches, this history is filled with discrimination and persecution, from the use of hospital gas chambers to eliminate the first group of "undesirables" in Nazi Germany, to the institutions that for years housed the disabled.

Josh -- Josh was maimed and blinded at age four when a deranged man poured sulfuric acid on his head. Today, 40 plastic surgeries later, with a reconstructed face and one glass eye, Josh has a full-time job, and works on the Internet through a computer that translates written words into spoken language. "As a disabled person, I am living in one of the most exciting revolutions that has ever happened," he says.

In interviews to promote the film, Christopher Reeve said he believes his situation is nothing compared to the problems faced by the people in this documentary. Without Pity points out that despite laws against discrimination, 70 percent of disabled individuals are unemployed and many are forced to live in poverty. They have been "segregated from society, shunned by a culture that judges human worth by physical perfection. They are uneasy reminders of human fragility." Reeve said if there was one thing people could take with them after watching the film, it would be that people should look at the disabled as human beings who have a lot to teach the rest of us. And that they are entitled to live productive lives in the mainstream of our culture.

While all of the stories are moving, like Christopher Reeve, I was particularly affected by the segment on Charlie Gentry, a little boy born without arms or legs. "When I saw the movie for the first time and I saw Charlie, it broke my heart. I could barely watch," Reeve said. "But as you see the movie, you will see his strength." It's true. Here is a child who without his wheelchair has to move by rolling across the floor like a sausage. Yet as you watch him in the playground with his best friend (who met Charlie by tripping over him), play a video game using his one appendage: a vestigal foot, or help his mom make dinner, you realize what a normal, happy, child he is. He and the others are powerful examples of how "disabled people are tired of being invisible and are declaring their right to an equal chance at life. They want to be understood and recognized for who they are, for their humanity... without pity."


If you have a dry eye after watching this Christopher Reeve-narrated documentary, you may want to check for a pulse. It profiles a cross-section of Americans who live with various disabilities, portraying all as individuals who want nothing more than independence and access to society. John Levesque, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The disabled, he (Reeve) says, "are uneasy reminders of human fragility." Not the least of these reminders, of course, is Reeve. Though never addressing his own paralysis or appearing on-camera, he thus serves the film not just as a familiar voice but as one more example of what it's about. Frazier Moore, The Detroit News

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