When Billy Broke His Head

Sundance Film Festival, Jan. 25, 1995–When Billy Broke His Head….And Other Tales of Wonder, a docu about disability and civil rights that won the Sundance Festival's Freedom of Expression Award, is unique: an irreverently insightful film about a “serious” subject matter many people find depressing. In turn funny and shocking–but always realistic and down-to-earth–one-hour docu, whose aim is to change the public's perception of the disabled, should be seen by as many viewers as possible on TV and other venues.

It may come as a surprise to many that numbering 49 million, the disabled constitute the largest minority in American society. However, until recently it has also been one of the least politically vocal groups. All this may change, however, with this new docu, which provides the first “no apologies” look at the disabled.

The search of one person, brain-damaged Billy Golfus, for an intelligent, active and respectful life is at the center of this humorous docu that highlights the problems faced by the disabled as they encounter a labyrinth of bureaucratic service organizations, insensitive or uncaring professionals, blatant discrimination and negative attitudes toward a condition perceived as “fate worse than death.”

With an irreverent tone reminiscent of Roger & Me's, When Billy Broke His Head follows its protagonist as he confronts a social worker to discuss “spend down,” the procedure by which the government decides how much earned money should be deducted from his benefits. The scene plays like a slapstick routine, except that it's real and that Billy is just one of millions of the disenfranchised.

The film is decidedly not the typical advocacy work that calls for sympathy and understanding of the disabled. “Like almost everyone,” Billy says in his quirky narration, “I thought disabled people were supposed to act tragic and brave, or else cute and inspirational, but these people weren't sticking to the script.”

Indeed, the humor and wit in this film highlight even more its serious goal of stoutly rejecting societal stigmas that label the disabled as “victims” or “saints.” Clips from Hollywood movies and TV's MOWs illustrate how narrowly the disabled have been portrayed.

Though the story focuses on one person's struggle with brain damage, Billy's observations apply to any form of disability–physical or mental. Using interviews with the disabled, When Billy Broke His Head presents an insider's view of the minutiae and the routines of disabled people as they go about their everyday life.

Through these personal stories, this potentially influential docu makes clear that the greatest barrier of the disabled is not their physical or mental condition, but stereotypical misconceptions perpetuated by the mainstream media and public opinion.