|This image from Dr. Gretchen Berland's film project "Rolling" show Ernie Wallengren coaching his son's basketball team.
‘Rolling’ offers honest, sometimes
shocking, look at life in a wheelchair
himself as part of Yale doctor Gretchen Berland’s documentary film project,
J. Galen Buckwalter describes how people have reacted to him during his 30
years of using a wheelchair, the result of a diving accident when he was 17.
“Because most people can walk and run and climb, and because I can’t,
I’m defined as disabled,” says Buckwalter, a clinical psychologist
and vice president of eHarmony.com. “Not only am I defined as disabled,
I’m expected to feel and act disabled. Most people look at me and see what
I can’t do. For many years, I did the same. But what they don’t see
now is that I’m a survivor.”
Capturing what most people don’t see — what life is like for people
who use wheelchairs — was Berland’s goal in her award-winning film “Rolling,” which
recently aired on public television stations nationwide and was the subject of
a “Talk of the Nation” episode on National Public Radio in January.
Her interest in the subject is connected to another issue that has worried her
as a doctor: the gap between what physicians know about their patients’ lives
and how those lives are actually experienced on a daily basis.
To achieve her goal, Berland decided to do something a bit unconventional in
medical research. By mounting cameras onto the wheelchairs of the three subjects
in the film — including Buckwalter — the participants were able to
record in close detail the way the world appears to them. Berland and her research
associate, Tony Puyol, filmed only small sections of “Rolling” themselves,
and the Yale doctor occasionally narrates.
The other participants in “Rolling” are Vicki Elman, a middle-aged
divorced mother with multiple sclerosis, and Ernie Wallengren, a television writer
and producer with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as “Lou
Gehrig’s disease.” Over a two-year period, Buckwalter, Elman and
Wallengren recorded 200 hours of material, which Berland wove into edited narratives
to create a 72-minute documentary. The film was re-edited to 55 minutes for television.
In “Rolling,” viewers watch Wallengren as he loses physical
capabilities while his neurodegenerative disease progresses toward his eventual
death; they observe the frustrations of Elman as she deals with an insurance
company about a power wheelchair that is continually breaking down; and they
witness Buckwalter confronting the possibility of having to give up some of
the independence his manual wheelchair has afforded him due to intense shoulder
pain caused by wear-and-tear on his upper body.
“By allowing Galen, Vicki and Ernie to give us a visual, first-person perspective
of their lives, the storytelling is much more powerful,” says Berland.
Her film captures the everyday (and sometimes challenging) moments of the three participants’ lives — pulling
themselves from their wheelchairs into cars, navigating city streets, cooking,
coaching basketball and simply talking with family members — mixed with
intimate personal scenes — Buckwalter’s visit to his doctor in search
of a remedy for his pain; Elman being helped after falling while getting dressed;
and Wallengren, a husband and father of five, describing in a close-up shot of
himself his sadness over eventually becoming completely dependent on those he
loves and doesn’t want to burden.
In comments viewers have written on websites and in blogs, most acknowledge that “Rolling” can
be painful, and at times shocking, to watch. Berland has received hundreds of
e-mails from people, both disabled and not, who have seen the film, most of them
praising its honest portrayal of the lives of people with disabilities.
One scene of Elman, for example, shows her being dropped off at her house by
a public transportation service. Her wheelchair has stalled, but the driver says
it is against company policy to bring her into her home. Instead, he leaves Elman
on the sidewalk, 10 feet from her front door. Elman’s cell phone has no
service in that spot, so she can’t call anyone for help.
Elman films herself growing increasingly panicked as time passes. She begins
to cry in her helplessness. As the sky darkens, she resigns herself to the probability
that she will spend the night outside, in the cold.
“I wonder what Vicki Elman’s driver must have been thinking when
he drove away, knowing that he had left her stranded on the sidewalk,” says
Berland. “Shame on him.”
|J. Galen Buckwalter is pictured here in a scene from "Rolling." In the film, Buckwalter discusses his identity as a person with a disability as well as his concerns about losing independence if forced to give up his manual wheelchair because of shoulder pain.
Buckwalter — writing in an article titled “The Good Patient” that
appeared in the Dec. 20, 2007 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine as
a companion piece to one by Berland about “Rolling” — says
that seeing his own footage in the doctor’s office makes him “cringe.” Watching
how he tries to please his physician makes him uncomfortable: He realizes that
his desire to be a “good patient” made him unable to communicate
the severity of his shoulder problem to his doctor.
“[T]he process of making ‘Rolling’ changed forever the expectations
I bring to encounters with physicians,” Buckwalter wrote. “Can video
cameras help other patients make themselves known to physicians in ways that
will improve the quality of health care interactions? Some of the scenes we filmed
are difficult to watch, but they happen. Through them, I see what I hope will
change. I have experienced what it can be like to engage with non-disabled persons
without trying to anticipate what they want me to be — and such memories
provide a cherished antidote to the feeling I re-experience each time I watch
that doctor’s visit unfold. Ultimately, at least for me, taking the camera
changed the equation.”
Berland, who was a film producer for public television before she attended medical
school, has long been familiar with the ability of film to tell personal stories
compellingly. While a medical student at Oregon Health Sciences University in
Portland, Oregon, she gave cameras to five teenagers to learn about their lives,
a project inspired by interviews she conducted with incarcerated teens. Later,
during her residency at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis,
she gave cameras to a dozen of her colleagues to film a “video diary” of
what happened while on call. That film, called “Cross-Cover,” has
since been used as a teaching tool in residency programs nationwide.
The idea for “Rolling” came to her when she attended a medical conference
as a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar and observed a participant who got
around using an electronic scooter. Berland, whose interests include participant-action
research and narrative medicine, wondered if she could do a qualitative study
that involved using a camera to explore the life of a person with a disability.
Her approach of using film to study health issues earned the Yale doctor the
reputation in medical circles of being non-traditional, a designation that might
have wreaked havoc on her career, especially in terms of getting research funding,
“We don’t really have a paradigm for what I do,” comments Berland,
whose film career included working for “Nova” at WGBH in Boston and
Lehrer Newshour” in New York. “Everybody told me it was risky. I
don’t think it should replace all the other research methods we do, but
I do think that film can provide another viewpoint into many of the intractable
problems that we’ve been working on for a long time in the medical community.
It represents another way of trying to study the patient’s perspective.”
Berland’s non-mainstream approach to studying health problems has earned
her numerous accolades, including a MacArthur Fellowship in 2004. She has
used some of her $500,000 MacArthur grant to make “Rolling” available
for free for educational purposes.
“The MacArthur grant has made it intellectually, emotionally and financially
a lot easier to do my work,” says Berland. “When I got the call informing
me that I had won, [the person] from the MacArthur Foundation said, ‘We
believe in you. We believe ultimately in what you do.’ Those words are
worth more than any amount of money.”
She also credits Yale for its willingness to hire a less-conventional research
“The University has been incredibly supportive of me,” says Berland,
who has been on the medical school faculty since 2001. The Yale University Art
Gallery is among the institutions or organizations that helped fund “Rolling,” which
was also screened on campus by the University’s Office on Disabilities.
Berland has other film projects in mind for the future, including one about traumatic
brain injury in American soldiers who have served in Iraq. As she ponders that
project, she is also responding to the tremendous interest “Rolling” has
generated since it was featured on PBS. In some locales where the documentary
aired, communities launched disability awareness programs or events in conjunction
with the film’s showing. Berland has received thousands of requests from
around the world for videotapes of “Rolling,” which several years
ago was named best documentary at the Independent Film Project conference for
works in progress, and was also chosen by the Independent Film Project for screening
at the European Film Market, held in conjunction with the Berlin Film Festival.
The film also won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the Lake Placid
Berland counts herself among the many people who report that “Rolling” has
changed their lives, especially in the way they now look at people who use wheelchairs.
“That Galen, Ernie and Vicki allowed us into their lives the way they did
is a privilege,” Berland says. “Seeing what they filmed has changed
how I see the world. One should be so lucky to have that kind of experience in
To see “Rolling” online, visit www.thirteen.org/rolling/experience/thefilm.
— By Susan Gonzalez
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