Kate Larsen reflects on a screening of Richard Butchins' compelling documentary 'The Last American Freak Show', followed by a live performance from London's raw and edgy punk rock band Unity & DeVision at O2 Academy, Islington, London on 26 August 2009
Billed as the first authentic freak show in over 40 years, 999 Eyes is run by three non-disabled people (‘the abominable showmen’) and takes a mixed bunch of disabled people on tour of small-town America. But what they tell us is a celebration of ‘magic, imagination and genetic diversity’ is confusing and hard to describe. Watching Butchins fly-on-the-wall documentary of the circus on the road, is hard work. Part funny, part sad, and I still don’t know how to feel about the rest.
The troupe forms a messy, dysfunctional family who all have their own reasons for joining the tour. The general message is: “if you’re going to stare at me on the street, give me ten bucks to stare at me on stage.” But Butchins tells us later that, while the freak show is still running, all the performers from his film have since left.
Jackie (the ‘Half Woman’) tells us that all forms of entertainment are exploitation. But the difference is that this show is not about talent. The acts are un-rehearsed and amateurish. They are more creative in their quest for grease needed to fuel their eco bus than any of them are on stage. 999 Eyes is about gawping at people for who they are and what they look like, not about what they can do, which feels strange and disrespectful.
Sure, the performers made a choice to be there, to be looked at on their own terms and get paid for it (though badly). But prejudice always has a victim, and we see many levels here. Not just the stares in the street, but the snaky underbelly of the ringleaders’ drunken, thoughtless cruelties.
Butchins puts himself in the film, sharing his discomfort and growing affection. Later, he says the performers all thought it painted a fair picture. Not surprisingly, the ringleaders have refused to comment.
It’s an important film, and I would be interested to see how it is received by a less disability-aware audience. But as for the freak show itself? There is clearly still a need for disability awareness, celebration and rights. But I’m not convinced this is it. Like the carnival’s band, it’s just a little too out of tune, out of time.
Following on from the film the lead singer of Unity & DEViSiON came on stage dressed as a sheep! The fleece was quickly (thankfully) explained by their soundcheck song and soon replaced with a high-shine superhero outfit and electric guitar.
U&D are apparently ‘at the forefront of challenging people’s attitudes about disability.’ But with no visible impairments and lyrics I couldn’t really hear, they weren’t flying the disability flag particularly high. But they’re not the disability alternative of watered-down Christian rock. This punk-rock quartet with great harmonies and a high-energy wildcat of a front woman can play. From black latex jumpsuit and devil ears to pom-poms and bowler hats, this is a band you’ve got to see live – if for the costume changes alone.
To catch Unity & DEViSiON on myspace go to www.myspace.com/unityanddevision