Provocative Film Explores Love and Sexuality Among the Disabled
Dozens of films have focused on those with diseases or disabilities — and there’s no shortage of Hollywood productions about love and sex. But only a handful have ever really tried to combine these two themes.
“Take a Look at This Heart” does the job with tenderness and finesse. In the film, director Ben Duffy and executive producer Daniel Garcia attempt to show what love and intimacy feels like for people without arms or legs, or those restricted to wheelchairs.
The documentary, which runs one hour and 40 minutes, has been well over a year in the making, though it took only a month and a half to do the actual shooting.
“The reception has been amazing,” Garcia told BioNews Services, which publishes this website, in a phone interview from New York. “That’s kind of what’s kept us going.”
The movie can be purchased via iTunes, and premiered months ago. It’s been screened no less than 20 times across the country — from California’s Malibu Film Society and San Diego University to New York’s Mount Sinai and the School of Visual Arts — and seen by thousands.
The next screening will be Feb. 8 at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. That 6 p.m. event is sponsored by the Hereditary Neuropathy Foundation, a nonprofit group that advocates for people with Charcot-Marie-Tooth and related inherited diseases. (Details are available here.)
“The film’s message, although represented through other disability types, is universal and is relevant to our community as a whole,” said Estela Lugo, the foundation’s medical outreach manager. “Love and sexuality is adaptable and not defined by our physical limitations. Whether able-bodied or disabled, we are all worthy of our own beautiful love stories.”
‘I’m sexual and sensual’
About half the 17 disabled people portrayed in Duffy’s film have cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, or muscular dystrophy. The rest are permanently paralyzed as the result of auto accidents, shootings, and the like.
One, the quadriplegic actress Angela Rockwood, portrayed herself in the 2012 TV series “Push Girls.” She said people often incorrectly assume that those with disabilities don’t want or can’t engage in physical intimacy.
“I’m sexual and sensual,” Rockwood, who has a boyfriend, tells Duffy in the film. “I’m walking around one night dancing my booty off. The next night, I get paralyzed and I wake up in the hospital. I’m not going to change inside immediately. I’m still going to want to make love. I’m not going to wake up paralyzed and not want affection.”
Others like Ajani “AJ” Murray, an actor with cerebral palsy, has yet to find his soulmate.
“Sometimes, I feel like a loser,” Murray says with tears in his eyes. “I’m 34 years old, and I have yet to have a romantic relationship. I can’t figure out why. But I try to be positive. Maybe if I don’t think about it, it’ll happen.”
Duffy and his crew traveled extensively to make this documentary, shooting in far-flung locations from New York City to Bozeman, Montana, and Ponce, Puerto Rico.
At times, the subject matter is intimate and graphic — with discussion extending to sexual positions and the logistics of making love to a man or woman in a wheelchair. The disabled people he interviews, as well as their lovers, represent a variety of races, ethnicities, and sexual preferences.
A labor of love
Duffy, 28, has directed seven other documentaries, including “We Are Skateboarders” and “Tin Soldiers” — which chronicles the world of Paralympics and adaptive sports. Garcia, 29, runs a Manhattan staffing firm.
“Ben and I went to high school together in Putnam County [upstate New York]. We weren’t close back then; we didn’t hang out much,” Garcia said. “About a year and a half ago, I was coming home from work on the train, looking at Facebook, when suddenly something popped up about Ben’s new idea for a documentary. He wanted to do something about love and sexuality within the disabled community.”
Garcia immediately called Duffy and told him he really wanted to help finance his film.
“My sister had cerebral palsy, and so did a cousin. She passed away from other complications,” he said. “Another cousin has severe MS and it keeps getting worse. This is why I wanted to make sure the subject would be done in a very sensitive manner.”
This need is also what makes Duffy the ideal director for a small production and one of this nature.
“Ben’s personality brings something out in people. He’s extremely compassionate, and he gets people talking,” said Garcia, noting that the only negative reaction to this film — the first he’s produced — is that it lacked closed captioning in the early stages.
“Take a Look at This Heart” ended up costing about $50,000 to make. Garcia said it would be “phenomenal” if that amount could be recouped through paid downloads.
“In terms of documentaries, it’s still pennies. But for us, this was a tremendous amount of money. I depleted my savings account for this film,” he said, adding: “I hope it reaches everyone it needs to reach. And if we make back some money on it, we’re just going to make more films.”