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Sex And Disability: Boston Filmmaker Turns Lens On ‘The Last Taboo’

Freeman writes on a laptop, using a joystick, and he edits using Final Cut Pro, an industry standard. (Margaret Evans/WBUR)

Freeman writes on a laptop, using a joystick, and he edits using Final Cut Pro, an industry standard. (Margaret Evans/WBUR)

BOSTON — Alexander Freeman has always been focused. When he was a toddler, he used to spend hours by the garden gate in his family’s Chestnut Hill home. Time after time, he’d open and close that gate, trying to get the movements right, trying to be perfect.

Freeman says he feels imperfect.

“I do not have this perfect body, what other people consider normal. So that made me even more determined to do that thing perfectly,” Freeman says. “But I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve known all my life that I would have to work that much harder to be understood, to be taken seriously.”

It’s that kind of focus Freeman applies to what he sees as his calling. He’s determined, he says, to defy the odds and to make films that defy stereotypes. No easy feat for a 25-year-old; even more challenging for a 25-year-old with cerebral palsy.

Filmmaker Alexander Freeman (Courtesy Nick Hayes)

Filmmaker Alexander Freeman (Courtesy Nick Hayes)

With four writer/director credits already, Freeman is now taking on a touchy subject: sexuality for people with disabilities. In “The Last Taboo,” he tells the stories of six men and women with various physical disabilities, and an able-bodied partner who was in a relationship with one of them. They talk about gender, identity, beauty, intimacy and relationships, and what their experiences have taught them about themselves.

“I call them outcasts,” Freeman says, “people who are pushed aside, people who are considered not equal.”

People such as Gary Karp. Karp has been using a wheelchair since 1973 when he injured his spinal cord falling from a tree. Karp, who went on to earn a master’s degree in architecture, is now an international public speaker, corporate trainer and author. He’s written three books, including “Disability & the Art of Kissing.”

Karp says Freeman’s film has given him an opportunity to share his perspectives on sexuality and the sense of self.

“We’re talking about our own sense of value — whether somebody sees us as valuable enough to explore intimate experience with us,” Karp says. “It’s about this deep, powerful partnership that we seek: somebody who can be a day-to-day partner with us, somebody who can hang in with us because we’re all so imperfect. And we all struggle so much with all of these things.”

Karp says that’s what great sex is about.

“That’s where the best sex comes from.When you have all those other things working in a relationship. It’s not about whether or not your genitals work or you have sensations in certain parts of your body or you can move in certain ways,” Karp says. “If somebody is basing their sense of self and their attractiveness in a relationship on whether they can perform porn-star sex, they’re making a mistake, disability or not.”

Freeman includes his own story in the film, speaking frankly about the first time he felt attractive.

“It was the first time I felt wanted in a romantic way, and the person who gave me that experience really changed my whole perception of who I am,” Freeman says. “So the beginning of the film is about discovering what I was feeling when that happened.”

That relationship didn’t pan out and Freeman went through what he calls “a dark period.” Then he decided to channel his anger into creativity and what is now “The Last Taboo.”

An Ambitious Project

Freeman edited ‘The Last Taboo” with Ryan Egan. They met in a screenwriting class at Emerson College in 2011. Freeman had joined the school’s documentary film organization called Captured Emotion, where he pitched the concept for “The Last Taboo.” It was a hard sell because of the topic, Freeman says.

Egan, a 21-year-old from Philadelphia who wants to work in documentaries, agreed it was an ambitious project for any college student. But she says Freeman is capable, and she shares his goals.

“‘Taboo’ is in your face about sex,” Egan says. “But it’s about more than that. Once you sit down with all the footage and hear people speak, it’s less about sexy-fun-time stories and more about what it’s like to be in a relationship and what it does to your self esteem to be validated in a relationship. It’s also a call to break down barriers and encourage people to look beyond predisposed perceptions.”

“It’s … a call to break down barriers and encourage people to look beyond predisposed perceptions.”
– Ryan Egan, Freeman's editor

Egan and Freeman work as they would in a professional environment. He says his physical limitations don’t limit his abilities as a filmmaker. He writes on a laptop, using a joystick and he edits using Final Cut Pro, an industry standard.

On set, he doesn’t have to hang lights or move a camera, but he says he has to make the right creative choices in order to direct his crew and make a scene work. As a director, Freeman has the final word, but he believes in a collaborative approach to get there.

His working style with Egan seems to be modeled on a legendary relationship he admires — that of director Martin Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker. It turns out Freeman met Schoonmaker five years ago at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline. He approached her after a forum there and says he didn’t stop to think of himself as anything but a young filmmaker looking for advice, or that his disability might get in the way.

“I thought, ‘Just go for it.’ This is how I have to approach things, because the moment I do that, all the misconceptions have to drop away,” Freeman said. “It goes from just a person in a chair to this is just another person, and the disability is just an added thing.”

But Freeman acknowledges he makes a significant first impression.

“Whether I want to or not, I have to deal with something most people don’t have to deal with, something very visible,” Freeman says.

While he favors blue jeans and plaid shirts like many young indie filmmakers, he looks and sounds like Daniel Day Lewis in “My Left Foot.” The 1989 movie, one of Freeman’s favorites, is about an Irishman with cerebral palsy who became a renowned writer and artist.

Like that character, Freeman makes spastic movements and his speech is often hard to understand, but he wishes people would just ask him to repeat what he says.

“I can usually tell people who are putting on a face because they get a kind of the glassy look in their eyes, like they’re trying so hard to look at me,” Freeman says. “I think people have a tendency to think it’s rude to admit they have no idea of what I just said.”

Schoonmaker had no such qualms, Freeman recalls.

“She was very down to earth. If she didn’t understand something she said so,” Freeman recalls.

The three-time Oscar winner asked Freeman to send her some of his best work, but he’s waiting until he feels like “The Last Taboo” is perfect. He’ll also submit the documentary to various festivals and theaters, as he has done with some of his previous films.

A Hobby-Turned-Budding Career

Freeman’s first foray as a director screened at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in 2008. Starring Paul Horn of “Gone Baby Gone,” it’s a narrative adaptation of the poem, “The Raven” by Edgar Allen Poe. His project, “I Care: A Documentary About Independent Living,” led to Freeman’s selection, out of filmmakers from across the world, for the Very Special Arts/AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Apprenticeship program. And last year, another of Freeman’s narrative movies, “Meet Annabelle,” was chosen as the official selection at the 2012 Picture This Film Festival, the International Disability Film Festival and the 2011 Arlington International Film Festival.

Freeman’s passion started as a hobby in grade school. With his parents’ video camera, he enlisted his brother and a friend to shoot various stories, including their own version of “Titanic.”

It was not until Freeman went to Brookline High School that he decided to make movies his career. He’d been involved in the school’s theater program, where he felt most at home among the actors and stage crew. Then, as a junior, he took a video production class that he says opened up a new realm of creative possibilities.

Freeman says his “a-ha” moment came after his first shoot.

“We came back to the classroom and looked at what we’d shot, and I remember thinking ‘Wow, this is amazing. We just captured a moment in time that will never happen in that same way again,’ ” he says. “And I thought, I can craft it and mold it to be what I want so that it’s not just a scene, it’s manipulating to share ideas and move people in some way.”

It was at that moment that he decided that he’d study film in college.

While he continued to make films after graduating high school in 2005, Freeman’s college path has been circuitous. Freeman first went to work for City Year in Boston — where he produced a recruitment film — before starting at Fitchburg State University in the fall of 2007. He was “miserable” in what he describes as a “toxic” housing situation, and he transferred the following year to UMass Amherst. That wasn’t the ideal fit because UMass didn’t have a film production major, so he transferred last year to Emerson College, where he has flourished. Freeman expects to graduate in 2014 with a BFA in media production.

Freeman says he’s had a lot of help along the way, including school aides and personal care attendants who assist him with physical needs. And from the start his parents have been his fiercest advocates in every aspect of his life.

He is also thankful that his early film work attracted the attention of a Boston-based production company No Limits Media, which financed his narrative short, “The Raven.”

“If it weren’t for No Limits’ Artemis Joukowsky, Dan Jones and Steve Marx, who saw my vision and what I was capable of, I would not be where I am today,” Freeman says.

“My work is a testament to who I am, not what I appear to look like on the outside.”
– Alexander Freeman

Beyond college, Freeman plans to work as a professional filmmaker. But whatever he does, he says his overarching goal is to make a mark.

“My work is a testament to who I am, not what I appear to look like on the outside,” Freeman says. “We have a responsibility to make a difference in the world, to make a mark in society and not sit back and let the world go by.”

Tackling ‘The Last Taboo’

His latest film tests his resolve to do just that. In “The Last Taboo,” Freeman says he’s aiming to challenge and change the misconception that people with disabilities can’t or don’t want to have sex.

“Because of people’s fear of getting involved with someone who looks different from their ideal picture of who is considered attractive by society’s standards and are afraid to try something that isn’t by their definition ‘normal,’ the topic remains a taboo,” Freeman says.

Disabilities expert and author Gary Karp, who appears in the documentary, is watching Freeman’s career with great interest. He says the 25-year-old will encounter challenging first impressions, and he may get shut down by people who quickly assume he’s not capable.

“What could disable Alexander is not his disability but external attitudes,” Karp says.

Freeman agrees. “What I do think is going to be difficult in my life is changing people’s assumptions, but it’s nothing I can’t do. It might be fun.”

Both hope the film industry will move toward portraying characters with disabilities without making the story about the disability.

“Alexander is going to develop characters where it’s the people, and their disabilities are secondary,” Karp says. “We’ll see the impact of their disability on their lives and how people respond to it, but on the whole we’re just people in world. ‘The Last Taboo’ is about that.

“He’s going after one of the most insidious and mistaken beliefs that sexuality isn’t part of life for a person with a disability, that somehow they’re not complete. I’m really hopeful that Alexander will convey the universal richness of what this story of disability has to tell,” Karp says.

That universal theme is woven throughout Freeman’s narrative films and documentaries, culminating with “The Last Taboo.” It’s also a theme he tries to live by.

“We might be in a chair, but everything still works. I’ve got a heart. I’ve got a mind, and I’ve got a body,” Freeman said. “Everyone deserves to be touched. People need to have the attitude of ‘Hey, I may not have done it before but, yeah, let’s give it a try.’ ”

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  • Lawrence

    Probably a better film than most of the “blockbusters” from Hollywood. 

    • pketo

      Lawrence, Comparing Alex’s work to hollywood is like comparing apples to oranges. His work is three thousand levels above any indie filmmaker out there.

  • Charles

    I’ve known Andrew and his family for years.  I saw “The Raven” and was enchanted by it; I can’t wait to see “The Last Taboo.”

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/margaret-evans Margaret

      Hi Charles, I hope you and many more people get to see “The Last Taboo” soon. I’ll be keeping an eye on the film’s website for screening details and word on festival submissions. Thanks for commenting on the story in the meantime.

    • http://www.facebook.com/alexander.freeman.56 Alexander Freeman

      Thank you very much for your kind words Charles, the film will be released June 9th 2013 at http://www.thelasttaboodocumentary.com and http://www.outcastproductions.biz

  • Steve Garson

    Margaret,  Thanks for writing about a subject that is rarely discussed.  A wonderful story. It’s wonderful how technology and the internet has expanded creative film pursuits for people.  I look forward to seeing this film.

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/margaret-evans Margaret

      Hi Steve, I appreciate your thanks but I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to get to know Alexander and his work. In fact, I’ve known him for years. He’s from my neighborhood and went to my kids’ grade and high schools. But now, through his films and this story, I’ve learned how creative and determined he is. So, I’m more thankful than deserving of thanks, I reckon. Thanks for your comment! 

    • http://www.facebook.com/alexander.freeman.56 Alexander Freeman

      Thank you very much Steve, the film will be released June 9th 2013 at http://www.thelasttaboodocumentary.com and http://www.outcastproductions.biz

  • pketo

    This film-maker is one of the most loving and generous people I have had the privilege of knowing. His work has been an inspiration to me; starting with “The Poet” through “Meet Annabelle.” I concur with Charles’s statement “I saw “The Raven” and was enchanted…” I have been deeply touched by Alex’s films and hope to see “The Last Taboo” on a cinema screen soon.

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/margaret-evans Margaret

      “The Poet” was my favorite, too, until I saw “The Last Taboo.” Thanks for your comment!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=663442125 Jeff Gentry

    Thank you for this compelling, detailed report. People who have physical or intellectual disabilities are four to ten times more likely than the general public to experience physical or sexual abuse. Mr. Freeman’s work is likely to not only increase our awareness that people with disabilities are, like us all, sexual beings, but will also reduce the silence and naivete which are often perpetrators’ stock in trade.

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/margaret-evans Margaret

      Thanks to you, Jeff, for making these points!

  • R. Berred Ouellette

    Having worked with Alex on two of his films; “The Raven” and “Meet Annabelle,” the look and sound of “The Last Taboo” film trailer displays great leaps in his film making acumen.  Congratulations and may it be a success.

    • http://www.wbur.org/people/margaret-evans Margaret

      Hi R. Berred, I watched the films you worked on. Well done. Both have strong stories, with different ways in the telling. I hope you get to see “The Last Taboo” soon.

  • Gus

    Great to learn about this project! You may also want to check out Our Compass, directed by Tess Vo (tvo@griffin-centre.org). Our Compass tells the previously unheard stories of a group of young,
    queer-identified Torontonians who are also labelled as having
    intellectual disabilities. For more information see http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1717183/

  • Snowbabies60

    I am a 70 yr.old woman   and i read your article and found it to be one of the most amazing articles or for that matter anything i have read in a long time. Thank you for the incredible insight to another part of life.

  • Scopman

    Excellent article, film, books (Freeman)…. and great links provided to even further research and ideas that we all need to view, accept, celebrate and understand.  Thank you!
    Sandra Copman
    Triangle

  • amy m. threet

    well, I guess someone got to it before me and a disabled friend filmmaker. I have MS my friend has polio. I am a published writer/actress/wheelchair dancer, she is a filmmaker/actress/wheelchair dancer. We have spoken on the radio re: disability and sexuality, I am trying to write about it and speak re: it as I do have a Masters in Social work, and too much personal experience to mention. I am also finding that it is absolutely the last taboo, she has a child, I have an ex-husband, boyfriend-people just can’t seem to accept that and a wheelchair or other disability. check my site on You Tube amy meisner threet/www.amymthreet.com/flowslaw@@yahoo:disqus 
    .com
    would love to talk to /interview people re this topic for print and radio. sometimes I feel like I am the only one but I know that’s not true. Just being or becoming disabled doesn’t mean your needs and desires go away.

  • Guest

    The Last Taboo Private Screening September 20th, 7pm 559 Washington Street Boston, MA 02111Bright Family Screening Room, The Paramount Center – Emerson College

    Please RSVP at the following website http://www.eventbrite.com/event/4074998430 and please let us know what screening you are coming to by emailing alexanderfreeman87@gmail.com, amscotina@comcast.net, Andrew_Christenson@emerson.edu, giarrobino@gmail.com.

  • Duncan O. Wyeth

    As a person with cerebral palsy and an adjunct faculty member teaching “Disability
    in a Diverse Society” at Michigan State University, I am so very excited about The
    Last Taboo documentary…………..to see it myself and to share with my students.
    The recognition of persons with disabilities as sexual beings is the ultimate test of
    this society’s ability to see us as truly human.

    Alexander Freeman…. I CELEBRATE YOUR SEXUALITY, YOUR HUMANITY
    AND THIS NEW BRIDGE TO INCLUSION.

    Duncan Wyeth,  wyethd@msu.edu

  • Robert Rudney

    FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

    Tel:  (703) 573-4929                robert.rudney@gmail.com                 
    http://www.loverslame.com

     

    Disability, Love, Sex … and Jobs:  A Novel Perspective

               
    “Lovers Lame is the novel that makes disability sexy,” quips Bob Rudney,
    the author and long-time disability advocate who’s just published his first
    fiction work (Booklocker, $16.95, paperback, $8.99 electronic, http://booklocker.com/books/6101.html).  “The book’s also
    a conscious effort to raise public awareness on disability issues, especially
    employment, and to expand the audience,” he adds.

    In Lovers Lame, narrator David Levin’s lonely and tightly
    controlled world turns upside down when he wanders into a self-help group for
    job seekers with disabilities.  David, an acerbic, out-of work editor with
    left-side paralysis, grudgingly befriends a motley group of self-styled ‘crips’
    and becomes infatuated with Jessica Cowan, an alluring, but mercurial artist
    battling the debilitating effects of multiple sclerosis.

    David falls hopelessly in love, while Jessica insists on
    maintaining her distance as she comes to grips with her own tempestuous past.
    Their struggle with their own inner demons plays out against the backdrop of
    people with disabilities fighting prejudice and ignorance in a world that still
    excludes them.
                “It’s both a
    plea for social and economic justice, as well as a poignant love story,” says
    Bob, who’s retiring as a Senior Advisor in the Defense Department.  “Only
    one in five Americans with disabilities is employed.  That’s
    unacceptable.  The characters in the novel confront this bleak
    reality.  They also face all the extra hurdles of forming personal
    relationships, of looking for love, while burdened with a disability.  Lovers
    Lame shows them as human beings, not as poster children.”

    Bob was recipient of a 2008 Kennedy Foundation Congressional
    Fellowship and won the 2011 Defense Department Award as ‘Outstanding Employee
    with a Disability.’  He was Co-Chair of the Booz Allen Hamilton Disability
    Forum and served on the Virginia Business Leadership Network Board.  He is
    available for presentations, interviews and other media events. 
    Information can be obtained from robert.rudney@gmail.com

    #

     

  • http://www.facebook.com/rmillerchat Robbin Miller

    There are also two 28 minute videos on Sexuality and Disability. The first title is “Psychosocial Aspects,” and  the second title, “Physical Aspects,” by Sonya Perduta, CCRN and wheelchair user. Robbin Miller interviewed her on her show MillerChat in 2000. Clips of these programs can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/millerchat. Both of these videos are being marketed to higher education programs in counseling at http://www.emicrotraining.com.

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