Redefining Disability through the Lens of Art
Award-winning filmmaker Reid Davenport creates his films with an eye toward “removing systemic barriers in society.”
by Brook Endale
Reid Davenport, B.A.’12, wants his audience to question why things—all things—are the way they are. His feature film, “I Didn’t See You There,” landed him the Sundance Film Festival's U.S. Documentary Directing Award in 2022.
Davenport, who is disabled, shot the movie from his electric wheelchair, taking viewers along as he navigates the streets of Oakland, California, unveiling the glaring inaccessibility that can impact a disabled individual’s everyday life. The innovative film was hailed for its ability to showcase Davenport’s vantage point and spark a shift in society’s understanding of disability as a political term.
Davenport’s passion for filmmaking began during his time at GW, where he attended the School of Media and Public Affairs (SMPA) with assistance from a Presidential Scholarship. In 2011, he wanted to go on a study abroad trip to Florence along with many of his friends and classmates.
However, the university in Italy declined his application, citing its inability to accommodate his wheelchair on its campus.
“I was devastated. I knew that most of my friends were going abroad,” Davenport said. “After a while, I decided I was done being upset about it and wanted to do something productive instead. It prompted this idea to make a documentary about that experience.” Davenport was enrolled in Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs Jason Osder’s Introduction to Media Production class at SMPA.
Before the class started, Davenport requested a meeting with Osder to make sure accommodations could be made to allow him to participate in the physical aspects of the class, including shooting video.
“It was great he wanted to talk, and I assured him we’d work it out,” Osder said. “So when Reid came into my office for that first time, I hadn’t thought to rearrange the chairs in my office. There was no room for his wheelchair, and I got very flustered.”
Davenport looked at Osder and said, “It’s OK,” before proceeding to bulldoze the chairs out of his way. Osder still laughs when reflecting on his first meeting Davenport, saying he knew right away he’d get along with him.
Osder served as a mentor to Davenport as he decided to use the rejection from the study abroad trip as inspiration to make a documentary exploring what it is like living with a disability in Europe.
“It is always exciting when a student comes to me and says they want to work on a project and want my help,” Osder said. “When a student is passionate, and it comes from a personal place, and they want my support in making a project, that’s even better.”
That led to one of Davenport’s earliest projects, “Wheelchair Diaries.” Davenport was able to raise money and visit four European countries—Ireland, Belgium, Italy and France—in three weeks.
Davenport’s award-winning and deeply personal films include “I Didn't See You There” and “A Cerebral Game.”
Davenport used that time to document the lives of Europeans living with disabilities and brought to light the pressing issues surrounding accessibility that persist internationally.
“It was really powerful in that I was able to kind of take all of this pain I had about not being able to study abroad and turn it into something productive that people could see, and people could question why things are the way they are,” Davenport said.
He credits Osder for mentoring him through the process of making the film.
“That’s very rare, very unlikely for an undergraduate student project to raise that kind of money and certainly to wind up as a distributed film,” Osder said. “That’s the only time it has ever happened to me in 16 years of teaching.”
After graduating from GW in 2012, Davenport was accepted into Stanford University’s Master of Fine Arts Documentary Production program.
Davenport continued to make other films, including “A Cerebral Game,” which won the Artistic Vision Award at the 2016 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
“After I made my first film, I was a little hesitant to keep making films about disability,” Davenport said. “However, I went back to making films about disability, because I feel that documentaries about disability are usually very corrosive and perpetuate stereotypes. There need to be more films about the positives of being disabled, and that’s why I like to make films on the topic.”
Davenport’s work has received widespread acclaim and has been featured in national publications.
Osder said he couldn’t be prouder of Davenport’s career, calling “I Didn’t See You There” a skillful work of art.
“It’s wildly creative, and it presents something to society that’s somewhat unique. That is, instead of looking at me to think about my experience, look through my eyes and think about my experience,” Osder said. “It’s truly a creative and artistic triumph.”
Davenport said when he worked on “I Didn’t See You There,” he didn’t foresee the film getting the reception it ended up receiving.
“It was gratifying. I made this film for disabled people,” Davenport said. “I wanted disabled people to resonate with it. And to hear how non-disabled people also resonated with it was a big surprise. It’s something I’m still trying to wrap my head around.”
As he looks forward to what’s next in his career, Davenport is excited to keep making films. His upcoming project, “Life After,” will explore the political ideologies surrounding death and disability while giving a voice to the disabled community in the debate around medically assisted suicide.
Through his films, Davenport wants his audience to rethink how they view disability.
“The idea that disability isn’t an individual medical diagnosis but rather a political class of marginalized people with shared experiences. It’s about removing systemic barriers in society,” Davenport said.
Photography courtesy of Reid Davenport