If there’s a more persuasive documentary self-portrait of a filmmaker eager to envelop you in their existence without really showing their face, well, that’s only because this film isn’t longer.
Equal parts personal exorcism and political activism, I Didn’t See You There offers an impressionistic investigation of Reid Davenport’s identity as a man with cerebral palsy and an artistic spirit that has, at great expense of emotional comfort, separated him from the people for whom he cares most in this world. Using a camera rig he could easily tote while tooling around town in Oakland, Davenport wanted to reclaim and reconcile his own place in society rather than how society saw him. The technology also empowered him to “look for shapes and patterns without worrying about meaning and words.” Just because he hasn’t fussed over them doesn’t mean he hasn’t masterfully fused them to these images, which arrive from a perspective that’s only askew to the able-bodied — one that’s instantaneously arresting and demands your cognitive confrontation with the difference of how Davenport sees the world.
You’re also unsure of the umpteen directions in which Davenport will drive the film — from the circus tent that pops up near his apartment and haunts his day-to-day activities as well as his analysis of America’s relationship with physical disabilities to the able-bodied assholes who infringe upon his freedom of movement because they conflate their comparative speed with importance.
There are also some very funny moments, like when he drags his friend Dan out for a day of leisure because the producers don’t want him to look like a loner or when a stranger in his building praises him for physical prowess and Davenport responds, “I mean, everybody has their shit, right?” Davenport also checks his Match profile, visits some museums, deletes the same robocall voicemails we all receive, and contends with those goddamned scooters that have sprouted like weeds. (All of it illustrates how what most of us perceive as blemishes in urban planning are blights to Davenport.)
Davenport also makes a couple of trips home to his Connecticut hometown, where he laments how physically and existentially lost he feels. (One shot he captures of the family dog, waiting in vain to be allowed outside, is one of the year’s most evocative and, in a detail revealed about the closed door, also among the most exceptionally heartbreaking.) His mother, off-screen, also exudes compassionate concern for her child, but you can also tell it’s that of the relieved caretaker whose physical responsibilities are no longer required and who knows she can only invest so much concern when he’s living on the other side of the country.
Indeed, Davenport weaponized the title of his film in so many wise ways — not the least of which is how hard edges of bygone barbarism can be so easily sanded down into a socially acceptable structure we don’t even notice any longer. Doing more in 76 minutes than most documentaries would do in twice that time, I Didn’t See You There is among the very best documentaries, and overall films, of 2022.