directed by Hind Bensari
Hot Docs, the Canadian International Documentary Festival, runs April 26-May 6, 2018 at Toronto's Bloor Cinema. Visit the fest's official site for more details.
by Bill Chambers Oy, that title. It thankfully proves somewhat ironic, although disability docs would be wise going forward to avoid sentimental trigger words like "heroes," Bowie homage or not, if they don't want to be stigmatized as inspiration porn. The problem with We Could Be Heroes is that it's easier to peg what it isn't than what it is. Director Hind Bensari follows Moroccan athlete Azzedine Nouiri as he trains for the 2016 Rio Paralympics. He'd already set a world-record for shot put at the 2012 games, but some extracurricular research tells me that Englishman Scott Jones bested him just a year later. Bensari prefers an elliptical, direct-cinema approach that forgoes these expositional niceties, which I think is a misstep when we see wheelchair user Nouiri ambulatory without any sort of elucidation. There are spectrums of disability that transcend the naked eye, but try telling that to the idiots who memed a woman in a wheelchair standing up to reach a bottle up high in a liquor store with jokes about her faking it. Nouiri is not faking it--classified as an F34 athlete (meaning he has "moderate to severe hypertonia in both legs"), he credits his disability, in a rare autobiographical aside, to keeping him off drugs in his junkie neighbourhood, though that begs the intervention of a filmmaker follow-up question, too. ("Why?") Bensari respects her subjects' reserve to the point of seeming incurious to a near perverse degree. As a conspicuously-disabled individual who's subjected to 20 Questions pretty much every time he leaves the house, I wish more people were like her; as someone tasked with reviewing We Could Be Heroes, I wish she were less reverential. She has a habit of lingering long enough to normalize her subjects, which some may find suitably profound, but not a Frederick Wiseman length of time, which would allow the idiosyncratic details of the challenges they face to emerge organically.
Maddeningly, We Could Be Heroes became a topical documentary earlier this week when the sentient colostomy bag currently labouring to destroy America from within said, and I quote, "What happened with the Paralympics was so incredible and so inspiring to me. And I watched--it's a little tough to watch too much, but I watched as much as I could." I have no idea what he means by "what happened with the Paralympics," but that's okay, neither does he. It's just more of that Queens jabberwocky that dribbles out of his little inflatable-doll mouth whenever there's a mic around. The "it's a little tough to watch," though: that stings. That's the ableist id given voice. If nothing else, Bensari's desensitizing gaze shows that paralympians are not disabled people struggling to be athletes, but rather athletes adapting to struggle. Tough to watch is POTUS attempting to hold his wife's hand; this is grace. The film's rosetta stone is not its title but the lyric that comes next in David Bowie's "Heroes": "just for one day." Nouiri returns home to Morocco a two-time medalist and they're still not paying him a fair wage and those arena doors are still sealed off to him. It forces a professional jock towards political activism, and in a post-Colin Kaepernick world, that might finally grant Nouiri the credibility a Trump would deny him. The assertive bittersweetness of this coda is refreshing in itself, even if it leaves the movie tonally askew.