Academic journal article Post Script

Impaired and Ill at Ease: New Zealand's Cinematics of Disability

Academic journal article Post Script

Impaired and Ill at Ease: New Zealand's Cinematics of Disability

Article excerpt

In what has been called New Zealand's "Cinema of Unease," the nation's isolation, alienation, and idiosyncracies have often been depicted in terms of physical, intellectual, and psychological dysfunction. (1) In Ian Mune's The End of the Golden Weather, cognitively disabled Firpo (Stephen Papps), mocked and tormented by the beach community of Te Parenga, offers for young Geoff Crome (Stephen Fulford) a glimpse of fantastical transcendence from the normality of the adult life he is about to enter. In Alison Maclean's Crush, set amidst the iconic bubbling mud pools of Rotorua, the brain injury and paralysis sustained by Christina (Donogh Rees) galvanize the tormented relations between an attractive American woman (Marcia Gay Harden) and a New Zealand father and daughter (William Zappa and Caitlin Bossley). And in Barry Barclay's Ngati, the uncertain future of a predominantly Maori community plays out alongside the illness and eventual death of a young Maori boy (Oliver Jones).

Each of these films suggests that disability figures in the nation's self-imagining in complicated ways. Indeed, along with the centrality of disability rhetoric in New Zealanders' commentaries on their nation and their cinema, feature-film representations of disability and illness indicate the importance of the disability trope for the nation's concept of itself, a dysfunctional cinematic image of the national body which is sometimes self-pitying and sometimes ironic and liberating. In considering the function of cognitive dysfunction, paralysis and brain injury, and illness in, respectively, The End of the Golden Weather, Crush, and Ngati, this article contends that New Zealand's cinematics of disability offers a particularly New Zealand vision of national identity. Moreover, the association of a distinctive New Zealand identity with a sometimes-disparaged, sometimes-embraced physiological deviance may produce a representative politics that not only makes space for, but values such difference in "real life."

In keeping with recent scholarly examinations of disability, this article differentiates between "impairment," as a physical or mental abnormality, and "disability," as an identity or phenomenon constructed around impairment by social, cultural, political, and medical discourses (see Oliver). In the words of New Zealand disability scholar Peter Beatson, "[i]mpairment is a simple, objective, biological phenomenon; disability is a complex social and cultural one" (35). (2) The growing field of "disability studies in the humanities" has generated a wealth of studies attuned to the construction of disability through political, cultural, and literary discourses. (3) As Rosemarie Garland Thomson points out, "Western tradition posits the visible world as the index of a coherent and just invisible world, encouraging us to read the material body as a sign invested with transcendent meaning" (11). Within this tradition, the disabled body is exploited in order to delineate, by opposition, the normative or ideal body.

In examining cultural representations of disability, some scholars have emphasized the repetitive and stereotyped nature of such images. (4) Disability has often been used reductively and sensationalistically to encode inner deviance or corruption, in such enduring villains as Captain Hook and Dr. Strangelove, or to sentimentally sanctify virtuous and passive cripples. (5) But as Thomson discovers in examining texts by Ann Petry, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison, literary narratives may also "use the disabled figure and other extraordinary bodies to elaborate an identity that insists upon and celebrates physical difference," incorporating the disabled figure "into their vision of oppositional identity" (18). Indeed, for David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder, the central paradox of disability in cultural texts is that it functions as both a "destabilizing sign of cultural prescriptions about the body and a deterministic vehicle of characterization for characters constructed as disabled" (Narrative 50). …

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