Research scientist Galen Buckwalter, disability rights activist Vicki Elman and screenwriter Ernie Wallengren shared 18 months of their lives on camera hoping to get the public to see eye to eye — three feet off the ground.
“Rolling: life in a wheelchair,” is a documentary produced by Dr. Gretchen Berland, an internal medicine professor at the School of Medicine. Berland has distributed over 15,000 copies of “Rolling” and is currently in negotiations to broadcast it on PBS in the hopes of reaching a larger audience and promoting awareness of neurological disorders. She said she wants the film to influence health policy decisions, and a screening for members of Congress in Washington, D.C. is scheduled to take place May 24.
Beginning in the summer of 2001, Berland asked Southern California residents Elman, Wallengren and Buckwalter to record the view from their wheelchairs. One of the film’s goals was to give the viewer a unique sense of life through their eyes, Berland said. Armed with a specially designed camera mounted on the chairs which allows for a first-person point of view, Buckwalter, Elman and Wallengren were given free reign to film as they saw fit. The resulting film, named best documentary by the Independent Film Project in 2003, offers viewers a raw perspective of life in a wheelchair.
“When you give a camera to someone, it is very different than me asking ‘What is important to you?'” Berland said. “They control the camera through their lens. You can ask what it is like to open door that is not wheelchair accessible, but when someone shows what it is like, it becomes a very different experience.”
Berland’s knack for storytelling first developed as a third-year medical student interviewing incarcerated adolescents on a psychiatry rotation. She noticed a gap between the information on their charts and her personal interaction with them. Advances in research technology allow researchers to amass and analyze large populations and observe patterns, but Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a cardiology professor at the medical school, said standardized collections of data do not address individual nuances.
“If you study a few people, the results may not be generalizable,” Krumholz said. “But we found some universal truth to experience what it is like to be in wheelchair. [Berland] is able to unveil that kind of heroism in everyday life, but as they are able to overcome not just structural challenges, like a sidewalk being too narrow, but psychological ones.”
It was not until four years later as a fellow at UCLA’s Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program, which trains young physicians in research aimed at improving health care, that Berland got the idea for the wheelchair film. While attending a medical conference, she noticed a participant who used an electric scooter. Berland said the woman took longer to do everything — going down the aisle, getting through doors, rolling up to the microphone. What started as an idea to create video clip accompaniments for research journal articles resulted in a film that was screened in five nations.
At first Berland said she thought the subjects of her film would mostly record “objective processes,” the daily activities in a wheelchair that Buckwalter jokingly calls “Gimp 101” — getting into car, going grocery shopping, crossing the street or boarding an airplane. But the three participants mostly filmed basic aspects of their lives, Berland said.
“I do think it is hard for many medical people, whether they be nurse or physician, to identify with the patient,” psychiatrist Ellen Feldman said. “To treat patients effectively, you need some level of disconnect, but you also need a level of empathy. It would be interesting to see if this film bridges that, by helping people understand enough to be compassionate and still detached enough to say, ‘What can I do to help?'”
One viewer found Elman’s story the most emotionally resonant. Elman, who was stranded outside her house one night when her electric wheelchair broke down, cried in front of her camera while waiting for her neighbor to see her. Unable to afford a spare chair, she was forced to stay at a nursing home temporarily after her doctor told her she would need a “baby sitter.”
“Half the people in the room were teary-eyed,” said Joseph Magliocco ’79, who attended a screening of the film at Yale. “Reality shows give reality a bad name by coming off as sort of phony, but this actually seemed to me very real, and you really had a perspective of someone in a wheelchair. The typical response was, ‘Why aren’t these people being treated better?'”
Berland said the characters themselves were involved in editing the 212 hours of footage. Working with Buckwalter, Elman and Wallengren to cut the film, Berland said she strived to preserve the everyday moments of their lives, a process she equated to looking for a needle in a haystack. Because of the innovative nature of her approach, Berland said she operated differently from traditional filmmaking styles.
“It took us a while to learn how to screen the footage because the viewpoint is not like what a cameraman would shoot,” she said. “If you look visually at moments where significant interaction was going on, oftentimes the camera was pointed at the wall the whole time.”
Berland, a 2004 MacArthur “genius” fellow, has used her $500,000 award to provide copies of her film free to those who request it by e-mail.