“When I’m Not Alone” expertly explores typically untouched subjects in disability documentaries

when i'm not alone

By BA Haller
© Media dis&dat, July 5, 2010

It gives one hope for the future of disability documentary to know that the young filmmaker Rhianon Gutierrez is part of the disability film scene. Her 2009 documentary, “When I’m Not Alone,” truly explores a number of untouched subjects in documentaries about disability – sexuality, transgender identity, hidden disabilities and disability empowerment from community support.

The 21-minute documentary follows Sam Durbin, who was born female, but raised as a male by his abusive father. He experienced traumatic brain injury (TBI) at age 2 and that left him with a seizure disorder. His mother died when he was 3 and his father died when he was 28, and that’s when he ran from home and never looked back.

He had few skills at that time. He hadn’t learned to read or write or distinguish money. Sam also has a developmental disability that affects his learning and a mental illness. He was homeless and shoplifted for necessities. When he was caught, Sam was referred to a disability program in Orange County, Calif. That’s when his life began to turn around.

Sam says he didn’t know what a boy or girl was when he ran away at 28 and a doctor told him he was biologically a woman.

But Sam says he sees himself as a male: “I do not see me as a female. I see me as a male because that’s what I was for 28 years of my life and you can’t change that.”

Sam would like to have gender reassignment surgery but because of his disabilities, the surgery would be too dangerous.

The documentary makes it clear that finding a community people with disabilities is what saved Sam from becoming hopelessly violent and anti-social. The decades of abuse he suffered had programmed him for violence, but through his work at the support program for people with disabilities, Integrity House, he learned how not to give in to violence.

The executive director of Integrity House, Cathy DeMello, mentored Sam, and he learned to read and take care of himself. In the 15 years he has been associated with Integrity House, he grew from someone who needed 24-hour support to someone who lives on his own in an apartment and takes care of himself and his dogs.

Gutierrez’ documentary shows the leadership role Sam now has at Integrity House. He’s a dynamic speaker who truly provides support for other people with disabilities. “He communicates that people with disabilities are people first,” DeMello says.

He’s even written a book about self-determination for people with disabilities, called You’re Not the Boss of Me.

Sam says what’s most important to him is that “I live the life I want.” And that is his goal for all people with disabilities.

The documentary does an excellent job of telling Sam’s story without giving graphic details of the abuse he suffered, and even with some of the specific information about his fight against giving into violence, the film exudes optimism. The film would be appropriate to show at any disability organization or disability studies classroom.

In a mere 21 minutes, Rhianon Gutierrez has created a touching and multi-faceted film portrait of someone’s journey from hopelessness to empowerment, as Sam becomes a true leader for disability rights.

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