By C.J. Hirschfield
(Updated January 9, 2023)
A monument to circus showman P.T. Barnum stands in Reid Davenport’s hometown of Bethel, Connecticut. “He got a pedestal,” says the director of I DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE, the new documentary that premiered at the 65th SFFILM Festival, while the disabled filmmaker’s perspective is from the sidewalk. The film, a meditative and personal feature that invites the viewer to see the world through his eyes—and at his level– often refers to the corrosive legacy of Barnum’s freak shows and how society relates to those who are different.
Winner of the Directing Award for U.S. Documentary at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Davenport shot all of the footage in the film himself, and provides the voiceover narration. He has consciously chosen (unlike other films he’s made) not to show his full face. He says he wanted to make a film about how he saw the world, not how the world sees him. He has also abandoned the traditional narrative technique, favoring transitions that are driven primarily by aesthetic connections and considerations. The result satisfies, once the viewer recognizes that the film will not deliver a traditional beginning, middle and end—it’s more like a very thoughtful road trip from his wheelchair; we’re literally along for the ride. “The sidewalk at times turns into a stage, and I can’t control it,” Davenport explains in his director’s statement.
The journey mostly takes place in Oakland, a city Davenport moved to seven years ago because of its robust public transit system, and continuous sidewalks. Along the way, he encounters well-meaning enabled people “Please don’t touch me; thank you,” as well as indignities that include being stopped while leaving the airport for seemingly no reason, a ramp thoughtlessly being blocked by an extension cord, and being forced to ride backwards on a local bus. Davenport is unfailingly pleasant and polite in these situations, but we also observe flashes of his anger and frustration.
The surprise erection of a circus tent near Davenport’s downtown apartment is a trigger for him, and provides a leitmotif that runs through the film—that of the freak shows that used to be an integral part of the big top experience. He provides some historical information on some of the most famous performers, and quotes celebrated photographer Diane Arbus as having said of “freaks,” “They made me feel a mixture of shame and awe.”
Scenes of Davenport’s family in Connecticut provide a snapshot of their shared love, as well as a quaint town whose location nonetheless stifles his mobility.
The music, most composed and performed by New York City-based Troy Herion, provides an aural urbanscape vibe that greatly enhances the artistic feel of the film.
Back in Oakland, Davenport hints at the city’s gentrification, but never really expands on the subject, and the film ends rather abruptly; again, the director has chosen a path that is non-linear, and more immersive.
Davenport’s director’s statement continues: “…if this film makes my so-called unique perspective a little more common, a little more nuanced, a little more boring even, then I will have chipped away at the corrosive legacy of the Freak Show, a legacy that still resonates within all of us.”
A clip from the movie where Reid muses on a circus tent that has popped up in Downtown Oakland.
Can be viewed with closed captions.
I DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE premieres on PBS Monday, January 9, 2023 at 10:00 pmET (check local listings) and will be available to stream with no PBS Passport membership necessary until February 9, 2023 at pbs.org, and the PBS Video app.
Photos by Reid Davenport.
I DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE Website where you can sign up for information.
Director Reid Davenport’s “Through My Lens” Project.
Producer Keith Wilson’s Website
For more about the filmmakers and video interviews see below.
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”
Read the interview with director Reid Davenport by Patrick Mullen for POV.
Watch I DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE win the Documentary Directing Award a Sundance 2022
Producer Keith Wilson joins a Sundance 2022 Producers Roundtable.
FWD-Doc: Documentary Filmmakers With Disabilities Website