Runtime: 76 minutes
Director: Reid Davenport
Writer: Reid Davenport
By Valerie Kalfrin
Writer/director Reid Davenport takes viewers on an intimate journey in the documentary feature “I Didn’t See You There.” Shot from a handheld camera as he walks or uses a wheelchair, the film shows what Davenport sees day to day—and how other people view him.
One moment captures the clack of his wheelchair against pavers and glimmers of beauty: sunlight glinting through leaves, the lights from the subway stretching and growing in a streak across a shiny metal surface.
Another follows him boarding a city bus in Oakland, California. The driver insists he turn the wheelchair around to face the other passengers and straps in the chair so it doesn’t move. The other riders look on stoically or right through him.
Sometimes, while he films on the sidewalk, lining up a shot, a well-meaning passerby asks if he needs help. He politely declines.
A neighbor admires him for just getting around in the world: “More power to you, man. You … fight through.”
Everyone has something, right? Davenport replies.
Other times, someone unloads their car at a corner, blocking the ramp for him to cross the street. A worker plugs in a power cord in front of the door to his apartment building. When Davenport points out it’s in his way, the worker apologizes, then asks if he has about fifteen minutes to still use the outlet for a client. As if Davenport inconvenienced him instead of the other way around.
Debuting at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, “I Didn’t See You There” is at its strongest when it sits with such uncomfortable moments, showing disability in a way seldom seen onscreen: without romanticism or preaching, but through nuance and empathy.
The film has a loose narrative structure inspired by a bright-red circus tent in a lot near Davenport’s apartment. The tent makes him think of the “Freak Show,” which “used to display certain people—brown, queer, disabled—as human oddities,” he says.
So does his hometown of Bethel, Connecticut, where there’s a statue for famed showman P. T. Barnum, who popularized such displays. His mom and other family members still live there, a town that’s a type of “purgatory” because his movement depends on others, he says. To access the world, he must live somewhere with “robust public transportation and continuous sidewalks.”
Even without the tent to remind him, Davenport says he can still feel the Freak Show when someone stares at him and when he’s not seen. “Do you see me?”
Then again, he muses, he’s joined the show by turning the camera on his experiences.
As a mom whose 12-year-old son has a disability, I found “I Didn’t See You There” immensely relatable. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve encountered something that’s supposed to be accessible but isn’t, or thoughtlessness such as someone blocking our car at a handicapped parking spot because they’re dashing into a store for “just a second.”
Some camera movements may be disorienting. (I’m sorry to say I felt motion sickness in parts where the camera captures the rush and the flow of different surfaces and colors beneath the wheelchair.) But overall, “I Didn’t See You There” is a thought-provoking film and an eye-opening journey for viewers unfamiliar with disabilities. Those for whom disability is a part of life will appreciate Davenport’s way to be seen and heard.