Full disclosure: I know the film’s producer, Anne Kenyon, and she lent me a copy of the DVD after we got chatting about her film work one day.
The Music in Me (2007) is a documentary following a Sydney, Australia-based dance group called the Merry Makers, which is made up of about 50 intellectually and physically disabled dancers as well as 15 helpers. They’re pretty well known around these parts. The group meets every Saturday and has been running for about 30 years as I’m writing this. The documentary, a winner of multiple international awards including Best Documentary at the 2007 Avignon Film Festival, follows the group leading up to a performance at the Sydney Entertainment Centre (and as anyone from Sydney reading will know, that’s a really, really big deal).
We’re first introduced to Lucinda Bryant, the group’s present artistic director and choreographer. ‘They are probably the most amazing group of people I have ever come across. They break down all boundaries placed in front of them,’ she tells us. There’s a great deal of focus on Bryant’s role, as you might have predicted, and what she thinks and says, but she consistently redirects attention to what the Merry Makers themselves do rather than her role, which is refreshing considering that these sorts of documentaries – and sometimes abled people who work with disabled people! – tend in quite the opposite direction.
The structure of the film is such that, within the framework of leading up to the Sydney Entertainment Centre concert and dance rehearsals, there are also a number of interviews incorporated. These are with members of the Merry Makers as well as their families (and Bryant, of course). There were many interviews that must have been recorded that didn’t make it into the film; there are some included in the DVD’s extras. It was saddening that they evidently didn’t have enough time to fit them all in, because I would have so liked to have learned more about everyone.
That both dancers and their families are interviewed produces some interesting dynamics. We get to delve into people’s home and family lives more, and so there’s a more holistic picture of how Merry Makers fits into each person’s life than we might otherwise have had. We learn about the lives of Sam and his mother Maria; about how Sabina came to care for her granddaughter Samantha; about the relationships between Jenny, Alana and Aida. That’s because Merry Makers draws in a community wider than the dancers themselves. As Lea says of her daughter Rebecca’s participation in Merry Makers, ‘I didn’t realise when I joined Merry Makers that it was gonna be about me, too.’ There’s a very uncomfortable moment when Lea recalls her thinking about Rebecca’s being disabled as a tragedy, but then we come to her changed thinking, that the tragedy framework needn’t apply: Rebecca ‘can be what she wants to be, do what she wants to do’. It becomes more about everyone’s relationships than the dancing, and the interviews are really humanising. All too often disabled people are portrayed as a disability with a person attached, but these interviews really serve to show that the people concerned are in fact people.
The thing that bothered me the most about The Music in Me was that there were times when interviewing people’s relatives (most of the featured dancers were minors) took the place of the dancers speaking for themselves, when it moved from being about the community to parents speaking for their children. And at times, it didn’t fit in very well either, for instance, there wasn’t really a call for adult dancer Beaver’s parent to speak for him. Perhaps some dancers preferred their parents/carers to speak for them, perhaps communication styles were such as this was preferable, but nevertheless that overall dynamic remains, and I would like to have had more on the dancers’ perspectives. Something that did a little bit to mitigate my discomfort was that Lucinda’s mother Janet was interviewed, too, and there are some amusing tiffs between them over the administration of Merry Makers. I guess in this respect the documentary reflects the structure of the organization, it seems to be run by abled people. Overall, there’s a really high ratio of abled perspectives to disabled ones featured. As I’ve mentioned, this leads to some very distressing moments; it’s particularly stark when there’s talk about life expectancy and some of the talk from parents/carers about the dancers’ futures was upsetting to me.
And of course there are large chunks of the documentary that are devoted to showing what they do, just dancing, without commentary, which is great. It’s about the love of dance! It was pretty lovely to see how close everyone was, and the lack of the sort of contempt you often encounter from abled people who work with disabled people. There’s a great deal of emphasis on catering to every single person as individuals rather then expecting them all to fit into a particular frameworks of what people with their disabilities are like as is all too common.
The film runs at about an hour. And guess what, everyone? It’s subtitled all the way through and properly at that! This is something I oughtn’t to be surprised at, but proper subtitling is all too rare, even sometimes in disability-focussed media.