A Passion for Life
By Paal Juliussen

©Photo by Tom Robertson

Paal Juliussen
A transplanted Winnipegger now living in Montreal
 Free-lance writer trained in philosophy and journalism
  Likes food and contemporary culture
 Musician and avid cyclist
Teaches English as a Second Language

Shameless: The Art of Disability, Directed by Bonnie Sherr Klein, 71 minutes, 2006
The National Film Board of Canada

“Shameless” is a love story.

Bonnie Sherr Klein’s latest documentary introduces us to five people with disabilities, whose level in the art of living shames most able-bodied individuals. Their passion for life, which unfolds as the documentary progresses, did not spring from their brows full-borne, but came unto them through hard-won success at daily trials and the application of an unspoken inner resolve, which “Shameless” explores with honesty and tact.

“I didn’t want to be identified as someone with a disability,” says Klein, upon suffering a life-style altering brain-stem stroke at the age of 46 (1987). The making of the documentary “Shameless” was part of the process of coming to terms with her disability.

Robert Lang, Bonnie Sherr Klein, Yves Gendron, 1976
On the set of "Harmonie"

The word “shameless” is often used as a term of reproach for morally questionable behaviour. However, the psychological concept of “false shame” arises when, for instance, a person feels embarrassment at requiring help from others for part of the day’s demands, such as bathing and getting dressed (How many times has one heard: “I don’t want to be a burden.”).  False shame is also part of feeling different, and hence being apart and emotionally disconnected from others. Overcoming false shame (i.e., becoming shameless) is a process of discovery that allows one to reassert one’s innate sense of dignity and worth on a higher level than that at which one began.

Humourist David Roche

Klein’s documentary is spiced with judicious insertions from old television series. Footage from an early “Star Trek” episode has an injured Klingon saying, “The doctors believe my paralysis is permanent – I want you to kill me … I will not be an object of shame.”

“Shameless” participant Catherine Frazee, scholar and disability advocate, ruefully observes, “Society believes that everyone who matters, can walk.”

Catherine Frazee

However, Catherine tells us, “This is my body, and I feel as comfortable in it as any non-disabled person would be in theirs, I suppose.”

The world is cram-full with trophy wives and trophy husbands who will not and cannot love. “Shameless” features Dave Roche, a motivational speaker and humorist who has a facial disfigurement. Acting out the character of “Igor” in his traveling show as pastor of the Church of Eighty Per Cent Sincerity, he shames his audience into understanding that the monster is not on the stage, but lurks within each person who judges and then dismisses on the basis of mere appearance. Roche may well be asking: “Will the real disfigured person please stand up.”

Bonnie Klein says she has discovered how disability can be part of the basis for creativity: “The people with disabilities I know now have enriched my life.”

Bonnie Sherr Klein

As a young person Klein attended Akiba Hebrew Academy where she was exposed to the concept of “Tikkun Olam.” “Shameless” embraces the way of Tikkun Olam, which is Hebrew for “Repairing the World.” The repair is done through activism, advocacy and by consciousness-raising through education. Acts of human kindness are viewed as fulfilling “mitzvoth,” (singular: “mitzvah”) as enumerated in the Torah, (the Five Books of Moses of the Tanakh, i.e., the Jewish Bible). Each of us has a responsibility to make the world a more humane and compassionate place. To persons of faith, an act of kindness carries reverberations far beyond perceived limits of the act.

Perhaps it is society’s “default setting” that must be changed: Freud’s “will to pleasure,” and Schopenhauer’s “will to power” ought to be discarded in favour of the “will to meaning” of Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor, psychiatrist and originator of “Logotherapy.” The main tenets of Logotherapy are that life has meaning under all circumstances, and that our main motivation for living is to find daily meaning in our lives. With such existential premises, the concept of Tikkum Olam gains even more coherence and importance.  

Each of the five subjects in “Shameless” practice what can be termed the “art” of disability, whereby the transformative aspect of respecting and caring for one another allows each to see clearly that Personhood is not a whit altered by lack of mobility, nor by personal demons.

Contact: Paal Juliussen

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