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Disability Representation in Film; how it can go wrong

With the release of Penguin Bloom, I had been thinking about the representation of people with a disability in cinema and was going to write an editorial on the topic focused on that movie. With the recent release of Sia’s Music, the topic seems more relevant than ever.

As most of you will know, Penguin Bloom portrays the true story of Sam Bloom and her family. It chronicles their journey from before a life-altering injury, a surfing injury that leaves Sam unable to walk, surf, or perform basic self-care. The injury forces Sam to go from being a fiercely independent woman to then being forced to consider life through the lens of disability and more importantly dependency.

The film mainly focuses on how the appearance of an injured magpie helps Sam and her family through the transition to “her new life”, a positive life that looks to the future, not back.

For the most part representation of disability works in Penguin Bloom, and I think it works because the production had been guided by the main character's real-life counterpart, the genuine Sam Bloom.

I would have felt more comfortable with the film if they had found someone in a wheelchair to play the part, or a director like Emily Dash1 to film it, but I find it hard to knock them too hard when they had Sam Bloom herself advising. They even filmed it in her house.

Conversely, the recent film produced by pop music star Sia, Music, has a clear authenticity problem. While it is appreciated that Sia has close personal relationships with people who live with Autism, and she says that she auditioned for people with Autism, the failure to hire, production advisers to advise with the direction and performance is disappointing to say the least.

The power of film and TV is to convey perspectives and narratives based on points of view, we are not exposed to in our everyday life. With Penguin Bloom there is a genuine and I would say refreshing look at an authentic portrayal of the daily life of people with disabilities, specifically those who have acquired them.

I cannot say the same about Sia’s Music. The film comes off as a Hollywood confection of what normal people are being taught about people with disabilities and Autism. There is a long history of Hollywood using disability as a tool for entertainment without any consideration for telling stories that reflect the lives of people with disabilities, from Forrest Gump to Tommy to Rain Man.

Penguin Bloom may become a case study for how to include people with disabilities in film. The same cannot be said about Sia’s Music which I think puts us back.

Jonathan Shar

The Editor,

Australian Disability Ltd.

1Emily Dash -

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