The Power of Storytelling
“I think… the power of all storytelling… is to change the way people think. To have them ask questions or question their way of thinking in ways they hadn’t before.” Filmmaker Sachi Cunningham co-directs the documentary Crutch, chronicling the life of Bill Shannon, an internationally renowned artist, break dancer and skate punk… and a man on crutches since childhood. Filmmaker, photographer and Assistant Professor of Multimedia Journalism at San Francisco State University, Cunningham’s documentaries focus on international conflict, the arts, disability, and the ocean environment.
Now running a Kickstarter campaign to fund completion of the film, Cunningham describes Crutch as “the emotional journey of an artist’s struggle from childhood ‘cripple’ to international provocateur.”
She says: Crutch examines Bill Shannon’s controversial street performances where he exposes a hidden world of prejudices that disabled people encounter in public daily. Shannon often pushes back against strangers’ Good Samaritan impulses to make his point—and his art. The film explores how a degenerative disability and chronic physical pain have fueled both the beauty of his movements and his in-your-face attitude.
A Decade-Plus Investment
“I’ve actually invested 14 years in Bill Shannon’s story,” says Cunningham. “I filmed my first interview with him in 2001 when I was still working as an assistant to director/producer/writer Barry Levinson. I was living in New Haven at the time and Bill was living in New York City. I went to the city to interview Bill after he told me that he had been hired by Cirque du Soleil to choreograph their Verekai show in Montreal. I was looking for a documentary project of my own at that time. When Bill told me about his new job I knew I had the seed of a story. Little did I know how long it would take for that seed to grow to where it is now!”
A Complicated Story
Cunningham is co-directing the documentary with Chandler Evans. Developing the film has taken so long because “… it’s a complicated story and Chandler and I wanted to make sure we were getting the story right. Bill is a childhood friend, so I want to also be transparent in saying that I have felt a strong personal obligation to get his story right. As someone who has an invisible disability myself, I am also personally invested in making sure we get the disability message of this story correct. I have worked closely with the Longmore Institute on Disability Studies at San Francisco State over the last three years in order to educate myself more about disability studies and to make sure that we’re contributing positively to the discourse. I think I personally needed that experience and education in order to have the confidence to tell this story.”
Skills and Funding
Cunningham says that, when she began the project, her documentary filmmaking skills were in their infancy. “Embarking on this project,” she says, “made me realize that while I had experience with feature and commercial filmmaking, I had very little knowledge of documentary filmmaking. The film motivated me to apply to graduate schools for documentary film. I ended up going to journalism school at UC Berkeley to study with Jon Else and Deborah Hoffmann. Journalism school opened up a bunch of new and exciting career opportunities for me, so a lot of those 14 years were spent bouncing between school, new jobs and filming.
“As most documentaries go, there has never been full funding for the project, so some of the reason for the long production time has been due to the economic realities of the project. Bill has almost always been on the East Coast and Chandler, my co-director, and I have almost always lived on the West Coast. Many of Bill’s performances have been overseas, so in order to scrape together the money to document Bill we always needed to at minimum cover the cost of a plane ticket (though we used plenty of airline miles over the years as well!).”
“Readers might also need to be reminded,” says Cunningham, “that 14 years ago, while cameras and editing gear were starting to get cheaper, it still wasn’t as easy as pointing your iPhone on a subject and uploading to You Tube (no smart phones! no FB! no You Tube!). The average production flow would be for me to work at a job for a year, quit with enough money saved to film for a few months and then to start another job and repeat. As I got more skilled, my jobs became bigger and more time consuming, so the shoots would fall on long weekends or during my vacation time.
“I was thrilled to get my current job as a tenure track professor at San Francisco State, as finally I had a job that would require me to finish this film in order to advance. I’m currently on leave from teaching due to a Presidential Award that I received from the university that has allowed me to concentrate 100% on this film.
“Most documentaries about disability,” she says, “are fairly one sided. The person overcomes all obstacles to triumph over their limitations. There is certainly an authentic element of that in this film. But as with all good stories, Bill and his journey are way more complex than this. Part of these 14 years have been about giving Bill and his ideas time to express themselves clearly through his work and part has been about making sure we had the skills and visual material to then translate those ideas clearly to an audience.”
Filming in Japan
“Chandler and I knew we had reached the climax of this crystallization of ideas expressed through Bill’s work and our documentation of it when we followed Bill to Japan last summer. Bill appeared on two NHK TV shows last summer (basically like the BBC of Japan). It was Bill’s first time to Japan. I’m half Japanese and lived in Japan for three years and worked there many times over the years, so as the filmmaker I could make sure that nothing was lost in translation.”
“But because of the language and cultural differences, Bill was forced to really distill his message, which for us was exactly what we needed. For years we were waiting for a visually stunning and unusual performance by Bill that we could bookend the film with. We had actually dreamt that something would happen in Japan for over a decade, so it was an amazing feeling to get that shoot in the can.
“That shoot,” says Cunningham, “coincided with finally getting the interest of A-list Hollywood producers like Stephen Nemeth (Dog Town and ZBoys, The Sessions, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) who have been instrumental in helping to guide us to the finish line. But even Hollywood needs help finding money for documentaries!”
Cunningham says that building a community around Crutch is important, hence the Kickstarter campaign. “100K may seem like a lot of money,” she says, “but it’s going to take that plus the connections and work from our producers to secure that money and stretch it far enough to get the film to the big screen. It takes a village!”
“Regarding the time and drive that it’s taken to film one man’s story, I can say for sure that I couldn’t have done it if I was directing and producing this on my own. Chandler Evans, my co-producer, has kept the ball rolling in myriad ways over the years, from being a cheerleader to funding some of the shoots. It hasn’t been easy. But I can honestly say that every single time I am filming Bill, I am absolutely absorbed and mesmerized by his movement, his ideas, and knowing what his story can teach the world.”
Junkie for Unusual Stories
“At 42 now,” says Cunningham, “with experience making well over 200 video stories in places like Iraq and swimming in the lineup with the best big wave surfers in the world, I am a junkie for visually stunning, rare and unusual stories of people doing extraordinary things. But watching Bill still blows me away after all of these years. Keeping the camera on Bill and pressing play has been the easy part. I cried on the last day of shooting in Japan because I knew we had filmed the last scene of the movie. I literally had tears coming down my face while still shooting.”
“The importance of storytelling has many layers,” says Cunningham. “If if I may lean on some clichés, for me the top layers of journalism and documentary storytelling specifically are to bear witness, to document the first draft of history, to give voice to the voiceless and to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I am also personally drawn to stories that entertain and inspire. But I think the big north star and the power of all storytelling at its best for me is to change the way people think. To have them ask questions or question their way of thinking in ways they hadn’t before.”
Celebrate a Life Lived Outside the Box
“Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing was the film that made me want to be a filmmaker. Before that I wanted to be a politician as I thought that was the most direct way to affect change. Race was always a topic I thought there needed to be more discussion and positive change around, but in my mind, the conversations sparked among my peers after that film, both at the positive and negative extreme, did more to change the way people thought about racial tensions than any law or policy would have done. I love that line from the short film about Ken Burns by Sarah Klein and Tom Mason about good storytelling being 1+1 = 3 where Burns talks about Jackie Robinson’s story and the dilemma of a racist fan. “If you’re a Brooklyn Dodger fan, what do you do when he arrives? You can change teams … or, you can … change.” I hope Crutch will change the way people think about disabilities within themselves and others and that it will open people’s minds to different ways of life and expression. The film is ultimately about celebrating a life lived outside of the box and making the most of what you have rather than succumbing to the pressures of conformity.”