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“The Dress” (‘Sukienka’) by Tadeusz Łysiak has been nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Live-action Short Film category. But through the Disabled communities eyes, this Polish film is anything but award-worthy, and here is why…
I spoke to accomplished filmmaker and dedicated disability advocate Ashley Eakin to unpack why this is a harmful storyline and portrayal. Eakin’s latest film, Forgive Us Our Trespasses, was developed as part of Netflix’s Emerging Filmmaker Initiative. In addition, she participated in the Powderkeg Fuse Incubator, curated by Paul Feig where they produced her short film Roommates, which was selected for Slamdance and SXSW 2022. Eakin is currently developing a half-hour series with 20th Century for FX, and the project was inspired by her award-winning short film Single. Single premiered at SXSW in 2020 and received the Special Jury Recognition Award. The project was also the recipient of the New York Women in Film Loreen Arbus Disability Awareness Grant. In 2021, Eakin directed two episodes of TV for Apple and an episode of Brie Larson’s new series Growing up for Disney+.
In an industry where authentic disability representation is still hard to find, Eakin was excited to see a little person cast in a leading role. “I grabbed my morning coffee and sat down to watch the film – which was very well shot and done with incredible expertise. I followed Julia’s journey being a maid in a hotel in rural Poland. It felt like a nuanced perspective into disability that humanized our community” says Eakin.
Eakin mentioned that she is not a little person but is of shorter stature living with a bone disease. Eakin continues, “After a trucker expresses interest in taking her on a date, she goes to find a dress that will fit her. Clothing can be hard to fit at times, so I resonated with elements of finding the right clothing. She has a moment of self-doubt after she gets drunk and cries to her friends/co-worker that she just wishes she had a normal body”
So far, so good, but Eakin mentions this is where the film starts to take a turn for the worst. “Later, her friend/co-worker surprises her with a dress, and she goes to the casino to meet up with this date. It seems to go well, and he’s intrigued and by this time, it is clear she has desire and lust for romance – which is so rarely shown in films with those who have disabilities. Things get a bit steamy as they begin to make out in his car,” states Eakin.
Eakin mentions that she saw this film a month ago, and yet it still plays on her mind, “Their sex quickly turns into violence as he begins to rape her, slapping her calling her a stupid mid*et, and when he finishes he says how disgusted he is of himself for having sex with someone like her. I was gutted, traumatized. The film ends with her having to clean his room the next day, and when she opens his door, a naked woman with the perfect non-disabled body lies on the bed. She stares.”
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Eakin says the main issue with this movie is the Director, “a non-disabled man made up this story about a disabled woman’s trauma. I am careful not to say only people who have experienced this trauma can write and direct these things. Still, I think we MUST have disabled people consulting and surrounding this project and not just leave it up to the actor – who says herself in interviews that stories about someone like her are never shown. We are leaving the responsibility up to someone who feels like they have a shot into being seen – their stories and their struggles.”
Conveying this trauma is gratuitous and for shock-value. “It’s a shame when our stories are never being told, that the ones that do show us having sex – it is being raped and choked and being shamed for existing. This is not the average experience of someone with a disability. YES, violence and assault does happen at alarming rates to our community. Still, when there is such little representation on screen – this story can serve as a terrible example of our narrative. I have a disability and am in an inter-abled relationship,”
Eakin continues, “My sex life is comparable to the average non-disabled person. My husband does not fetishize me, and it is very normal, filled with passion, tenderness and love. Where are those stories? Why are we not making room to normalize our existence instead of perpetuating the idea that to have sex with a disabled person is taboo and devious. I am working on a pilot for FX where yes – we experience trauma that the character goes through, but we are also exploring all the other areas of our protagonist life – which is why I feel like this short is irresponsible – we need to be exploring other parts of her life – not just this tragic moment that makes society pity our community.”
This film is not helping Disability representation within the industry or beyond. Eakin says, “What is even more disheartening is that the academy thought this was something to applaud. Yes – zero doubt the filmmaking was incredible but in a story that was well intention with the filmmaker [Tadeusz Łysiak] even quoting…
“We all live in the world where the standards of beauty are set by the covers of magazines or pictures of Instagram models. We are getting accustomed with a certain cult of strength, and the canons of beauty are definitely too ruthless. How can we find ourselves in this world which points out every “imperfection”? We forget what is most important: our hearts. We forget that we are all made of the same clay and that we all need love. Loneliness is the number one disease of the XXI century. Millions of hearts die every day. And people just idly walk by. The Dress touches on the subject of rejection, loneliness and desire for love. Our heroine is a conduit of very universal emotions anyone can identify with. Julia is physically different from the rest of the society, but she is guided by the same needs and desires we all are. The world is full of lonely people who were doomed for this loneliness, even though, they do not deserve it. I hope our film will bring the audience’s attention to this issue and allow us to stop looking at ourselves only in the context of our looks, the shapes of our faces, our height, weight or other physical aspects. We were all created to love. It is love which rules the world. It is love which knows no boundaries nor limitations and is the beacon of hope in these dark, often brutal times.”
…How is this story showing a beacon of hope when it ends with her seeing a non-disabled woman naked in a bed. I feel like his mission statement means well, but this short shows me/disabled people that we are doomed and will never be this perfection of humanity we see everywhere else in media. This was clearly made for non-disabled persons to feel pity – not to shed a light and hope. It completely missed the mark and I am still dealing with the aftermath of being traumatized. This art actually harms our community – which is why we need more able-bodied people to collaborate with creatives who are not the actor. We have seen it in so many other capacities where directors/writers can take advantage of an actor because they are in the position of power. You need someone who can say – this is wrong and we need to change the narrative or add nuance.” states Eakin.
Tatiana Lee, who is a Model, Disability Activist and the founder of Accessible Hollywood says, “It’s not enough to just cast authentically and it shouldn’t be on the actor to comment on the script itself. That’s why it’s important to have a [disability] consultant in addition to other disabled crew involved in the story telling process. The consultant should understand the culture and nuances of disability representation. It’s like a disability advocate [being there] every step of the way”
Eakin was passionate to make it known that “Anna [Dzieduszycka] is INCREDIBLE. Give her the damn Oscar, but condemn this film. I was hesitant to even participate in this in fear it will get seen by others in our community and harm them. I also don’t want to harm Anna or make her feel terrible, but we deserve better.”
Eakin finishes by saying, “We deserve stories that show us as humans living in this world that are valued – it is possible, and it does exist because I am living it. The Oscar nomination showed that the academy thinks these are the stories we need. They are not.”