Becoming Bulletproof is a documentary that chronicles the making of short, fictional Western film, titled Bulletproof, starring people with and without disabilities. The fictional film is a project of Zeno Mountain Farm, an organization that exists as an inclusive environment for people with and without disabilities. Every year, Zeno Mountain Farm makes a film in order to give people both with and without disabilities something to work on together. Bulletproof, according to what is shown in Becoming Bulletproof, is the first film the Zeno Mountain Farm community has made with the intention of showing it to audiences around the world on the film festival circuit.
Writing about a movie about making a movie can get kind of confusing, and especially when the titles are so similar, so I’ll cease talking about Bulletproof from this point on and focus on Becoming Bulletproof, the documentary I’m reviewing here. I will say, briefly, that I hope to see Bulletproof at some point, perhaps at one of the many film festivals I attend each year. From what I saw in Becoming Bulletproof, it looks to be a unique movie-going experience.
Often when people with disabilities are featured in popular entertainment, it is a blatant and despicable ploy to garner easy sentimentality. Show a disreputable character caring for a disabled person, and the disreputable character gains instant credibility. Two examples that spring to mind include when Glee’s tyrannical cheerleading coach ’Sue Sylvester’ is revealed to have a disabled sister, instantly softening Sue’s character, and when one of Delivery Man’s ‘David Woniak’s’ hundred-plus children turns out to be developmentally disabled, giving the non-committal David the chance to show that he is capable of thinking about someone other than himself. In both cases, the disabled characters aren’t real characters. They’re only there to develop the characters of their abled relatives. This is the essence of marginalization in cinema. (Full disclosure - I haven’t watched all of Glee. If they make Sue’s sister into an actual character in later seasons, good for them.)
Becoming Bulletproof aims to show the good that can be accomplished in the lives of both disabled and abled people when disabled actors are given the chance to embody fully fleshed out characters on screen. The empowerment isn’t just in seeing disabled people in roles normally reserved for abled people. It’s in involving disabled people in the filmmaking process, giving them an opportunity to contribute to something larger than themselves, and including them in the community that develops on a film set where hundreds of people are engaged in a single pursuit. As Becoming Bulletproof shows, the benefits extend to the abled people as well. Everyone is better off when everyone is included regardless of their physical abilities.
Becoming Bulletproof is also a wise enough documentary to show not only the triumphs of this filmmaking process but the difficulties as well. Abled people working with disabled people does require both sides to have patience with the other. There is misunderstanding, different work speeds, and egos involved on both sides, and everyone has to have patience with everyone else… just as on a “regular” film set. The only difference here, from what I could tell, is that the cast and crew have to work a little closer on the set of Bulletproof, because half the people involved experience the world differently than the other half.
Becoming Bulletproof is inspirational but not in a cloying or simplistic way. The film shows that even though it isn’t easy for disabled and abled people to work this closely, it can be done, and the things that make it difficult are as much the abled people’s “fault” as anyone else’s. Furthermore, it is transformative to see how much it means to these disabled people to be included in our popular culture and not just forced to sit on the sidelines and watch. Becoming Bulletproof makes me more aware of the way movies often marginalize others. It makes me want to seek out movies and TV shows that don’t do that.
If Becoming Bulletproof is playing near you—check their website for screenings—I hope you’ll see it. It might change the way you look at the world.