When portraying disability, film usually favours the discrete kind – blindness, deafness, good-looking wheelchair users or mild mental illness with no physical sign of abnormality, for fear that it might cause the fragile audience unnecessary discomfort. Director Alex Widdowson is having none of it. His latest short, Music & Clowns, offers an unapologetically authentic glimpse of what life is like for someone with a profound learning disability, and for those closest to them, with the aim of demystifying the dreaded D word. Produced at The Royal College of Art and commissioned for The New York Times Op-Docs programme, Widdowson’s seven minute animated documentary has the sense of ease and level of sensitivity that can only be found in deeply personal stories. Be warned, Music & Clowns is honest, witty and entirely devoid of self-pity.
Jamie has two passions in life – music and clowns. Despite being born with Down syndrome, Widdowson’s brother has plenty of charm, a sharp sense of humour and an abundance of emotional awareness. Being close to nonverbal, Jamie’s family provide insight into his inner life, and describe how he, in turn, has touched and changed theirs. Fragments of their interviews are pieced together and brought to life through archive footage and heavily stylised animation (which changes throughout the film), reflecting the contrasting perspectives and personalities of the family members.
“A diagnosis does not reflect my brother’s human worth”
“We rarely see portrayals of the diverse, ordinary lives of people who have Down syndrome”, the director explained when we asked about his motivation. “Much of what we hear instead is based off a medical narrative. As prenatal screening tests improve, the birth rate of people with Downs has fallen. I believe people should be able to base life-changing decisions on accurate information. But I also feel that a diagnosis does not reflect my brother’s human worth.”
Indeed, disability is often sentimentalised and frequently misinformed on screen. At best, disabled characters are to be sympathised rather than empathised with, and at worst, they are shown as objects of pity and ridicule. By contrast, the frank portrayal of Jamie’s condition and his life in Music & Clowns feels like a breath of fresh air. Yes, the Widdowsons talk about his emotional intelligence and sense of humour, but they are also open about the disappointment and grief they felt when Jamie was born and they first realised he wasn’t a ‘normal’ baby. With this level of honesty, the film manages to simultaneously tug at the heartstrings, tickle the funny bone, and ultimately restore the viewer’s faith in humanity.
“I believe a society can be measured by its capacity to nurture those who are most vulnerable”
“Jamie has enriched our lives and I believe a society can be measured by its capacity to nurture those who are most vulnerable”, Alex perfectly sums up. It’s a simple and wonderful message that comes across loud and clear in Music & Clowns, and one that will hopefully go some way towards changing how disability is perceived on and off-screen. It’s certainly about time.