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Movies: How's Your News?

How's Your News is the best movie you'll probably never see.

I'd been wanting to see it for months (ever since reading this MetaFilter thread), but never expected to do so. The film had received critical acclaim at the few festivals that showed it (and won the audience award at the Comedia festival in Montreal), but there were no plans for widespread (or even limited) release. Luckily, I happened to skim a local weekly's movie listings just in time to discover that it was playing in Seattle's aptly-named Little Theater for four days only. I had the great fortune to catch the premier last night, and am pleased to report that my eager anticipation was entirely justified.

The documentary follows five adults with mental and physical disabilities as they travel across America in a RV and interview everyday folks for a show called How's Your News? Ronnie Simonsen and Susan Harrington are the two most active reporters, conversing with everyone from homeless men to women at grocery stores. Both conduct their interviews in idiosyncatic ways: Ronnie steers almost every conversation to the celebrities he is obsessed with; Susan is prone to bursting into song and ends every segment with a well-rehearsed sign-off. Sean Costello, who has downs syndrome, also speaks to a variety of people.

The other two members of the How's Your News cast are unable to speak intelligibly, but conduct interviews all the same. A speech impediment renders everything Robert Bird says as gibberish, but he can communicate quite effectively through written notes and by accompanying his "words" with gesticulation. Larry Perry has severe spastic cerebral palsy and can neither walk nor speak, but is able to hold a microphone and interview subjects by allowing them to talk freeform.

The interactions between the How's Your News team and the general public are always interesting, sometime awkward and frequently hilarious. The reactions to Bird's gibberish-talk are especially varied and telling: some vainly ask him to repeat himself in an effort to understand, others respond with generic uh-huhs and okays, and some "play along" by guessing at the questions he might be asking and gamely providing complete replies ("I'm doing great. How are you?").

It's hard to read about this movie and not think the whole thing smacks of exploitation. The director, Arthur Bradford, addresses this concern right on the film's home page:

All of the people associated with How's Your News?, including the reporters and their families, are extremely proud of the work which has been put into this movie. The How's Your News? reporters may not look, act, or speak like traditional news reporters, and the news which they gather may not be traditional news, but we stand by it all the same. In fact, we feel that to deny these reporters the chance to express themselves freely, travel the country, and communicate with the people they meet would be a real shame.
What's even more shameful, in my opinion, is that there are a plethora of well-promoted fictional movies about developmentally disabled people (Forrest Gump, i am sam, The Other Sister, etc.), but a movie showing actual developmentally disabled people winds up with no distribution whatsoever.

Furthermore, I have long felt that Hollywood's practice of lionizing the developmentally disabled does more harm than good. While some films (notably Rain Man and Who's Eating Gilbert Grape) portray those with disabilities as everyday people with everyday lives, many others reflexively elevate their protagonists to the status of "hero" for having been born with a handicap. The problem with such aggrandizement is that it prevents us from relating to the characters as fellow human beings; we are instead urged to look upon them as role models and metaphors. Worse still, we are admonished for laughing at (or even with) anything they do, because to do so would be "insensitive". In short, filmmakers try to have it both ways: they want to present the disabled as human (or, in some cases, the very essence of humanity), but they also insist that we not treat them as such.

But humans are funny creatures. The right to laugh, and the risk of being laughed at, comes with the territory regardless of who you are. To disallow this very fundamental interaction is tantamount to dividing us into camps. How's Your News does an excellent job of avoiding this "us" and "them" demarcation, and you feel like you're watching a home movie made by friends.

It's exhilarating to see how much fun the cast is having throughtout the film. Perhaps it's all the shows and movies that insist on depicting life as a disabled person as a deadly serious enterprise, or perhaps reality television has conditioned us to expect people on camera to be humiliated and degraded, but How's Your News?, just by showing folks enjoying themselves, comes across as remarkably upbeat and refreshing. At one point during an interview, Sean Costello tells his subject "This [trip] is my dream. What's your dream?" and everyone -- the interviewee and the audience -- finds themselves stumped by the question and envious of the asker.

Halfway through the travelogue the crew is seen playing Scrabble in the RV. The tiles have been placed onto the board any-old-way -- upside down and sideways -- and it's unclear if they are even making real words. But who cares? They're determined to have a good time, and they don't seem to mind if they have to break the rules to do so.

If you live in Seattle, you still have three days to see "How's Your News" at the Little Theater; if you live anywhere else, keep checking their webpage -- maybe you'll luck out. There are a few video clips from the movie available over yonder (scroll to the bottom of the page), but you will need Quicktime to view them. The "How's Your News" crew was also featured on "This American Life" earlier this year; you can hear that segment here

Posted on November 08, 2002 to Movies


I'm envious that you & Seattle got to see this film. Maybe I'll be lucky and it will be added to the DC schedule after all. Regardless, thanks for writing it up--great writing as usual.

Posted by: wynne on November 9, 2002 5:02 PM

I have also read a lot about this film, and was never quite sure what to think of it. It still sounds very exploitative to me, but I would like to have the chance to see for myself. I live in New York, not far from Manhattan, so it seems possible that the film will screen somewhere close by.

Posted by: Stacey on November 11, 2002 7:57 AM

I agree with Matt's write-up of this, and was one of the fortunate few who also got to see this in Seattle. To worry about the movie being "exploitative" is to miss the point, and to continue to treat disabled people like another species altogether. I'd like to congratulate the director for completely avoiding the hollywood nonsense of portraying disabled folks as saints or heroes, or people to tiptoe around without seeing the whole person (good and bad) just as you would with anyone who doesn't have a disability. What you see so clearly in watching this film is the similarities, not the differences, between the folks in the film and ourselves. They too experience nervousness, joy, fun, humiliating or akward moments, the need to belong paired with the simultaneous ability to do things how it makes sense to them, and none of it seems odd to them - why should it be any different viewed from our eyes?

Posted by: Courtney on November 12, 2002 2:57 PM

I was fortunate enough to see this sold-out film at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2001. I thought the film was excellent for so many reasons. Arthur Bradford and the entire cast were in attendance and they fielded questions at the conclusion of the show. A woman in the audience mentioned that she had met one of the celebrities Ronnie obsesses about (I forget which one) and just like in the movie, he barraged her with questions. It was hilarious. They also gave out T-shirts to a lucky few (including me ;-). Watching Arthur with the group, I realized how genuine and compassionate he really was.

Posted by: Leonardo on January 8, 2003 1:27 PM

I am a volunteer at the Little Theater in Seattle and was priviledged enough to see this movie more than once. How's Your News is one of the most amazing films I have had the pleasure seeing. The soundtrack is fantastic as well! I am a messenger downtown and have put a How's Your News Sticker on my bag to spread the news! Hooray for How's Your News!

Posted by: Ashby on March 22, 2003 8:32 PM