‘I Didn’t See You There’ Review: An Indirect But Affecting First-Person View of Living With Disability

After an hour of documenting his view on the world from the seat of his wheelchair in “I Didn’t See You There,” filmmaker Reid Davenport decides he’s had enough of himself. “I hope this is my last personal film,” he says to his mother, having spent the last nine years documenting the struggles and often literal barriers faced by people with disabilities in a series of short films, and encouraging others in his position to do so via his Through My Lens initiative. For most viewers, however, his debut feature will play as an entry point to his work, not a culmination of it. Composed entirely of hand-shot footage from his particular vantage point, it’s an evocative first-hand perspective on the challenges of living as a wheelchair-user in an America that still treats disability as an afterthought — but an elusive reflection of an artist who never really introduces himself to us.

That sense of distance may cost “I Didn’t See You There” — which wavers aesthetically between candid vérité and more experimental impulses — some interest from distributors following its premiere in Sundance’s U.S. documentary competition, though a long festival life awaits, along with likely exposure on specialist streaming platforms. Viewers with a firmer grounding in Davenport’s story and past work may more easily parse the film’s restless blend of everyday visual diary-keeping, impressionistic sidewalk observation and a thesis on the connection between society’s neglect of the disabled and America’s history of freak-show fascination that, while promising, never goes beyond the ruminative.

Davenport, it turns out, comes from Bethel, Connecticut, which also happens to be the birthplace of exploitative circus founder and “greatest showman” P.T. Barnum — a connection that gnaws repeatedly at the filmmaker, who wonders whether he, in another era, might have been one of the “human curiosities” showcased in Barnum’s gaudy novelty theater. (Davenport, whose face never appears on screen beyond the occasional dim reflection in a window, has cerebral palsy, though he leaves viewers to surmise that.) The erection of a circus tent near his new home in Oakland, California, meanwhile, further reminds the filmmaker that while modern society has declared freak shows taboo in name, the same morbid public interest that fueled them has merely been redirected at the different and disabled.

“I feel stared at,” he says, which may be why his camera largely avoids the eyes of any passersby: Instead, it is frequently turned toward the ground, or fixated on details and textures of urban geography, from brick walls to subway tiles. At one point, the lens travels skywards to gaze at a serene blue afternoon, disrupted by tree branches and power cables, and it feels like a brief, oxygenating trip into another realm. But “I Didn’t See You There” doesn’t look up often, and its handful of tart, testy scenes of human interaction with strangers — an impatient public transport aide who too brusquely seats him on a bus, a custodian blocking the ramp to Davenport’s apartment block, even a well-meaning neighbor who offers him a patronising “more power to you” greeting — make it clear why he’d rather avoid contact.

Less vividly conveyed are the fundamentals of Davenport’s life and personality. We gather that he moved to Oakland from Bethel “to become an artist after failing at more conventional career paths,” but the film gives us little sense of how he spends his days and makes his living, while we’re left to guess at what kind of social life (if any) he maintains. Twice in the course of the film he travels to Bethel to visit his family, notably his concerned but good-humored mom who is eager to get him back on the East Coast — but even here, “I Didn’t See You There” provides only oblique hints as to Davenport’s past, and why he may have traveled so far from it. For a film offering most able-bodied viewers a humbling perspective on everyday life, it’s hard not to feel some of the picture is missing.

Still, “I Didn’t See You There” is affecting even when it shuts us out, coming across as the sincere, frustrated expression of someone who’s tired of explaining himself and his position even to a sympathetic audience. “I wonder how many failed job attempts it would have taken for me join the freak show,” he says, returning to the film’s running analogy, “but a cynical part of me wonders if I have joined it.” To this end, he frets that as a documentarian, he has “made a career of my putting myself in front of the camera.” By putting himself strictly and subjectively behind it in his first feature, Davenport has at least protected his body from curious eyes, though his vulnerability still comes through loud and clear.