Documentary subjects with disabilites

Josephine Sittenfeld‘s “Ethan & Jennifer” is a documentary about two autistic children and their families.

Jennifer, 11, is from Belchertown and Ethan, 12, is from Amherst. Sittenfeld chronicles the lives of the children and their families, sleeping over their houses and going on vacations with them. The film is supposed to shed new light on what autism is like on a day-to-day basis.

But, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette‘s Mary Carey, “Sittenfeld has noticed that some viewers who were initially unsure of whether to chuckle during some scenes tend to loosen up when they see that the autistic families find some of their children’s offbeat behavior amusing.”

The reaction of the audience and portrayal of the subjects is something I often wonder about when documenting or doing news stories on people with disabilities or disorders.

As a journalist or filmmaker, one should aim for an honest portrayal, but doing so might be difficult. What if an honest story is viewed as “exploitation” of the subjects?

The MTV  documentary new series “How’s Your News” features reporters with disabilities.

Video from How’s Your News on Vimeo.com

“Humor is an important part of life with a disability (and life in general!),so we’d like you to know that it’s okay to laugh at some of this material. We’re all laughing right along with you…” according to a statement on the Web site’s homepage.

The show’s reporters state that people don’t find the material offensive, and believe they “provide a positive, empowering view of life with a disability.”

Journalist and P.O.V. blogger Tom Roston wrote, “But when you look at the show in the context in which it’s being marketed, will the audience be laughing with people with disabilities rather than at them? Or maybe it doesn’t matter. I am not sure.”

Video from How’s Your News on Vimeo.com

Neither of the films are like Frederick Wiseman‘s “Titicut Follies,” which shows the mistreatment of patients in a Massachusetts institution. “Titicut Follies” was banned at one point, but did cause change in the state institution.

Perhaps “Ethan & Jennifer,” “How’s Your News,” and other pieces featuring people with disabilities can cause change misconceptions, but the public’s view will always vary.

The film “Ethan & Jennifer” will be screened Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Whole Children Center in Hadley.

Free episodes of “How’s Your News” can be view at MTV.com.

Check out a HuffingtonPost.com article by James Moore.

Please feel free to express your comments on the matter.

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Filed under Culture, documentary, People

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