Aquired brain injury (ABI) has always been a popular plot motif in mainstream films. Many of us watch the journey of these interesting characters without giving much thought to the accuracy of experiences or even how the film’s portrayal may impact those living with ABI and their families and carers.
It’s time to challenge or correct these stereotypes and before her talk at the upcoming National Acquired Brain Injury Conference in Melbourne, Dr Suzanne Evas, ABI Project Coordinator & Workforce Innovation Grant Project Manager at the McKellar Centre, Barwon Health joined us to review the mainstream mythmaking of ABI. Having worked at the Toronto and Sundance film festivals and in the Sydney independent music industry, Suzanne brings her experience and passion for media and the arts together with her many years of experience in the disability sector to her views.
Brain injury & memory loss are popular plot devices for many mainstream films. How true are some of these screen portrayals to the real experience of ABI?
Unfortunately, not many. Often, ABI and amnesia are used as set-ups to create a situation in which enable the other elements of the plot to occur – such as a creating a mystery/thriller with Jason Bourne from “The Bourne Identity” trying to figure out who he is before he is killed, or creating a comic set up where Adam Sandler’s love struck character has to keep approaching Drew Barrymore’s character with an ABI in novel ways to win her love in “50 First Dates”. It’s an easy setup and a lazy one, but it gets reinforced through the media so audiences come to expect it.
But accurate portrayals can be found. It’s interesting to roam the internet reading blogs by people with ABI and family members, in which they have created their own recommendations of ABI-themed films. There is a lot of personal commentary on what the film meant for them, what they could relate to or experienced themselves, and what they feel is false.
I was interested to read one carer’s take on “50 First Dates” (which I and many others consider to be the last film anyone should watch if they really want to learn about ABI) in which she really responded to the love and dedication Lucy’s family and her community showed in wanting to protect her from emotional trauma after her brain injury. So even in all the ridiculousness of the comic set up, there was at least some truth in the emotional intentions of the family’s behaviour in that film.
What was your rationale behind some of the curating decisions for the upcoming Brain Injury Awareness Week Film Festival in Geelong this August?
I strongly felt we needed to put on an event that had mainstream community appeal, and was targeted at the average punter, and not specifically at the ABI sector itself, which I think we have been guilty of doing for many years. The point of an awareness week is to reach out to people unaware of brain injury, not people who are already affected by ABI or work in the sector. I wanted to use films as “the bait” if you will, to attract the public to an event where we could introduce the idea of ABI, including real people with ABI in the discussion, and hopefully create some teachable moments.
I needed films that were going to challenge or correct the stereotypes that are too often seen in films. I’m a mad film buff myself, so I had some favourites in mind, but I also did a lot of research of ABI film lists that organisations, clinicians and consumers had posted online. The criteria for selection was films had to either be based on a true story, or the fictional ABI portrayals had been lauded by people with ABI and clinicians as realistic. I arrived at a collection that I felt fit the bill and would have something for everyone within the program. There’s arthouse (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), extreme sports & family documentary (The Crash Reel), romance/chick flick (The Vow), action thriller (The Lookout) and neo-noir cult classic (Memento).
What impact does the broader media have on the conceptions of living with ABI?
Mainstream media and pop culture are the lingua franca of modern society – media reinforces concepts which become tropes we easily recognise and can understand. The repetition of these tropes leads to people taking them as is, and not challenging their meaning. You see it often enough, you take it to be true.
There has been extensive analysis in both media studies and disability studies of the reinforcement of negative disability stereotypes through media portrayals. A 2010 study of beliefs about brain injury in Britain revealed that 38% of survey respondents said they got their knowledge about ABI from the media. Public perceptions and understanding, in turn, influences public support for action, which influences policy, which influences legislation and funding. See where I am going with this?
We know we need more funding in the ABI sector, but we must get the public en masse to understand the issues and care about them the way we do. We need to start embracing and harnessing mass media and popular culture to communicate our message if want anything to change.
How can the goals of popular media become aligned with the goals of ABI awareness?
The goals are actually the same, to get people’s attention.
Media wants people’s attention to sell commercial spots, movie tickets, memorabilia, and a myriad of other profit driven initiatives. We want people’s attention to try and get them to care about and understand ABI the way we do, so we firstly reduce the number of people acquiring brain injuries, but also to influence policy and funding. We need to get this across in the mediums the general public are already tapped into and consuming widely. We can take a cue from scientists and researchers in other fields who have crossed the academic or clinical barrier to become mass media adopters , and have become media rock stars through their engaging, accessible and educational documentaries, and programs, like Sir David Attenbourough or the Mythbusters program. Or even having a well known media figure like Todd Sampson act as a decipher. He isn’t a scientist but has used his marketing and advertising nous to create two engaging and compelling series on neuroplasticity and neuroscience to a mass audience. Imagine if we can engage him to do a 3rd series with the focus on ABI? What could we accomplish?
The BANGONABEANIE campaign gained great exposure at this year’s Logos Awards. What other campaigns and activities are you involved in as part of National Brain Injury Awareness Week in August?
I’d like to first note the Logie Beanie moment was a good example of the kind of spontaneous media happening that a campaign like BANGONABEANIE can capitalise on to increase exposure. After the Ice Bucket Challenge flared then died down, there was much analysis about how other non-profit organisations were trying to replicate its success by getting their causes to go viral, but to little avail. It was just a moment that happened. We have to be fleet, ready to jump on those unpredictable moments for publicity. Yes, we have to think like commercial marketers, not disability advocates. ABI Awareness is our Coca-Cola – how are we going to get people to buy and drink it?
In Geelong for Brain Injury Awareness week (17th – 23rd August), in addition to the five night film festival, we are also running a week long Info Booth in Centre court of Market Square shopping centre. The Institute for Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research are hosting a community forum and ABI Expo on the Tuesday that’s also being sponsored by the Australian Injury and Disability Insurance Network. Plus, on Friday, Karingal and Brain Link are hosting a Caring for the Carers day to put the spotlight on those who care for ABI.
The National Launch is being held in Geelong City Hall on Monday morning at 11:00am, and will be live streamed on the web for all to watch. We’ll posting all event details at www.biawgeelong.com closer to the week.
Suzanne will be delivering her presentation at the National Acquired Brain Injury Conference in Melbourne on Thursday 13th and will be chairing the sessions on Friday 14th August. We’d like to take this opportunity to thanks her for all her efforts in organising the Special Film Screening of the ‘The Lookout’ on the evening of the 13th August.