‘I Didn’t See You There’: Film Review | Sundance 2022

Reid Davenport’s first feature doc intends to show viewers how it feels to navigate life in a wheelchair.

Ostensibly an attempt to show moviegoers what it’s like to spend most of one’s time in a wheelchair, Reid Davenport’s I Didn’t See You There is a debut doc that may only succeed with viewers who already know him and the disability-focused shorts he’s been making for years.

Viewed on its own, it communicates much less than its maker seems to intend, hovering in a not-very-satisfying zone between advocacy doc, first-person impressionism, and (very) tentative essay film about the world’s tendency to view difference as freakishness. Though it’s easy to sympathize with the struggles shown here, and some communities are likely to celebrate it, the film is very unlikely to reach far beyond those communities to change the mainstream attitudes Davenport objects to.

I Didn’t See You There

The Bottom Line

A mixed bag.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Director: Reid Davenport

1 hour 17 minutes

A slow-paced introductory scene suggests one straightforward path the film might’ve taken: We’re riding a commuter train with Davenport and, while other passengers exit toward the ground level easily, we slog through the long trek to inconveniently placed elevators. As the film progresses we’ll deal with clueless pedestrians, car owners who inconsiderately block curb cuts, the blight of rental scooters, and an especially irksome barrier blocking the ramp to Davenport’s own apartment.

But these are infrequent enough that they could easily be condensed into a short film that might well find lots of exposure online. Here, they get less screen time than other material that barely speaks to the sentiments Davenport wants to share. For much of the time we’re in the chair with him, the director points his camera at brick walls he’s passing, chain-link fences, or the ground.

“All of the footage in the film is shot by me from my literal point-of-view,” he says in press notes. But that’s not true in the sense of seeing what he’s looking at. We’re simply closer to his elevation, moving as quickly or slowly as he does. Once or twice (as with a sped-up look at the sidewalk beneath him), these chunks of footage approach an enjoyable, Brakhage-like abstraction. But on the other end of the spectrum (and far more plentiful) are scenes like a 54-second shot of flypaper.

The film tells us at the start that it wants to convey how its maker sees the world without putting that maker on display. A couple of scenes hint at Davenport’s discomfort with interest strangers show in him. Gathered together, their attempts at helpfulness clearly feel intrusive to a man who’s capable of opening doors, getting his wheelchair onto a public bus and finding his way around town.

Davenport tells us nearly nothing about who he is or what he does, beyond mentioning where he grew up and a vague statement about having moved to Oakland to become an artist. Late in the film we’ll eavesdrop on a conversation with his mother, in which he alludes to having been politicized a decade ago and expresses the hope that “this is my last personal film.” But the comments are too elliptical to tell newcomers much.

Davenport’s voiceover offers slightly more when it comes to the history of freak shows. A circus tent has been erected near his apartment, and he uses that as an occasion to muse on the history of paying conjoined twins, people with microcephaly, et cetera to let sideshow attendees gawk at them. That’s a subject worthy of exploration (not that it hasn’t been explored), but Davenport’s comments are largely superficial, and so scattered through the film that they feel like an unsuccessful attempt to make this project look deeper than it is.

Which is a shame, because there’s certainly room in the doc marketplace for more disability-centered films made by, rather than merely about, those with disabilities. Davenport’s press notes make it clear he’s offended by much of what people say about those who use wheelchairs to get around, and that he has objections even to much that is said or shown by people with only the best intentions. If he hopes to set things straight in a way that satisfies his standards while communicating with a broad audience, he may need to reconsider that bit about this being his last personal film.

Full credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production company: RePort Media
Director-Director of photography: Reid Davenport
Producer: Keith Wilson
Executive Producers: Alysa Nahmias, Bryn Mooser, Kathryn Everett, Andy Hsieh, Dawn Bonder, Marci Wiseman
Editor: Todd Chandler
Sales: Jason Ishikawa, Cinetic Media

1 hour 17 minutes