By Lisa Stahl
Throughout the early to mid-20th century, the disabled residents of Pennhurst State School and Hospital languished under horrific conditions in near secrecy. Allegations of abuse finally led to the landmark federal class action lawsuit Halderman v. Pennhurst State School & Hospital, which asserted that the developmentally disabled in the care of the state have a constitutional right to appropriate care and education and led to the facility’s eventual closure in 1987 – a full 13 years after the original filing.
Now, the stories of Pennhurst’s residents are finally being told to a wider audience.
Accomplished director and NYWIFT member Jodie Alexandra Taylor will screen her latest documentary, Pennhurst, on February 25 as part of the NYWIFT Member Screening Series. The film was inspired by her visit to what remains of one of the largest and oldest institutions for the intellectually and developmentally disabled. What resulted from her trip was not merely a remarkably original film that shines a light on the largely untold story of America’s shameful treatment of the disabled, but also a first-hand chronicle of what went on behind closed doors until the institution was shuttered by legislative order. One chapter of the story ended when the institution closed, but the fight for equitable treatment and representation for the disabled continues to this day. Making the movie inspired a fervent commitment on Taylor’s part to continue that dialogue and, in so doing, change the future narrative.
Taylor sat down with us to discuss the film and its potential impact.
Tell us about your background and training.
I’ve been a DGA director for five years now and direct a variety of content including commercial narratives and late night TV.
The film airs never-before-seen archival footage of Pennhurst and exclusive interviews with staff and the institution’s residents. How did you track down these people?
I was introduced to the grounds of Pennhurst by a local historian. I then tracked down former staff, case workers, and lawyers that worked on the landmark case. That ultimately lead to the privilege of my being able to pre-interview 323 former residents of Pennhurst who very bravely shared their personal experiences. We were met with a community of support for the film as people really wanted to get their story told. While we allowed each person interviewed to express what they wanted to say, we prepared the questions and knew exactly what we needed from each interview, ultimately editing to keep to the narrative structure we intended, while carefully adhering to a tight shooting and post-production schedule.
I was struck with the many stark black and white images in the film. How did you get those shots? Was this archival footage of Pennhurst?
Yes, and the archival footage is original to the source material. We wanted to be true to the former residents’ experience of the institution; hence the footage is used in its original format.
What’s become of Pennhurst since closing in 1987? What do you think the general public knows about Pennhurst?
I think the public knows very little about Pennhurst. The grounds today are being used as a very profitable haunted house which is a delicate point of contention in itself. On the one hand, it’s creating jobs for the community and is profitable enough to finance the building’s preservation. On the other hand, the memory of what happened at Pennhurst and to its residents, an institution that surreptitiously warehoused the developmentally and physically disabled from 1908 until it closed in 1987, is being mocked…. A narrative is being perpetuated that people with disabilities should be feared.
What filmmakers influenced your development or were mentors?
[NYWIFT member] Martha Pinson.
What were some challenges in completing this project?
Every challenge in the book! But mainly distribution. Obtaining it was a challenge we eventually overcame. We are very happy with Passion Films but finding the right fit for the film proved to be difficult. Thankfully the landscape of our industry has changed: audiences are flocking to see documentaries more than ever before.
To what extent do you think the entertainment industry should air stories about these issues and be a voice for social change? Would it be fair to say today’s audiences are very uncomfortable around images of institutions, disabilities, or physical disfigurement, or when confronted by the realities of less-than-perfect photoshopped Hollywood images?
The entertainment industry needs to catch up with reality. 20% of this country’s population is disabled yet the disabled are represented in only 1% of industry roles. We need to give these people a voice in mainstream media, to begin conversations about diversity and disabilities. The fact is: the film has proven itself viable, demonstrated that there’s an audience. It’s very popular. Since its premiere the film has made top 10 lists.
What message do you want audiences to take away?
That these individuals were not meant to be warehoused. They can thrive, with the right support. I was touched by the ability of residents who endured 30 to 40 years of institutional abuse to triumph and overcome…and by their ability to forgive. It’s a triumph of the human spirit. Hopefully we can inspire people who view this film to do better, to create a society that’s more inclusive.
Pennhurst screens as part of the NYWIFT Member Screening Series on Tuesday, February 25th, 2020 at 7 PM at Anthology Film Archives. Buy tickets.
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