NFB documentary filmmaker Bonnie Sherr Klein used to be quite a dynamo. A Vietnam War resister who came to Canada in 1967, Klein made films on everything from social activist Saul Alinsky and urban renewal in Montreal to a black community worker’s bid for the federal Liberal leadership in Rosedale. She was never solely a filmmaker, but an activist who believed in the power of widely disseminated images. From her early days at a Philadelphia Jewish Day School, Klein was enamoured of the concept of Tikkun Olam, a belief that the world can be healed. (Is it any wonder that daughter Naomi gravitated to the anti-globalisation movement and married Stephen Lewis’ son?) Most famously, Klein took on pornography in 1981’s award-winning Not a Love Story, where the filmmaker, along with stripper Lindalee Tracey, took viewers on a journey through the sordid but previously unexplored world of the sex trade.
In 1987, at the age of 46, Bonnie survived two catastrophic strokes caused by hemorrhaging of a congenital malformation in her brainstem. Soon after, she became a quadriplegic and required a respirator to breathe. Though things initially looked bleak, the tumour was ultimately removed. Rehabilitation was long and physically and psychically draining, but, throughout everything, she kept recorded and written journals, trying to make sense of her illness. Ultimately, a lot of that turned into Finding My Place: A Journey into the World of Disability, a radio documentary Klein made for the CBC to celebrate Independence ’92, an international disability conference. More recently, she was the cofounder of the Society for Disability Arts and Culture, a group that established the pioneering KickstART! Festival of Disability Arts and Culture.
Klein’s most recent work, SHAMELESS: The Art of Disability, will get two showings on Wednesday night—at the Bloor Cinema—as the opening installment of this year’s Doc Soup. Where last year’s Murderball showed us that an indomitable spirit and a foul mouth can survive a paralysing accident, SHAMELESS shows us that a creative, playful élan can as well. A subversive skewering of Hollywood stereotypes concerning the disabled, the film follows Klein, humourist David Roche, poet and scholar Catherine Frazee, dancer and choreographer Geoff McMurchy, and sculptor and writer Persimmon Blackbridge as they create their own images of disability.
A celebration of art as much as glance inside the struggles of living with an illness, SHAMELESS promises to be as touching as it is challenging.