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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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