Russia’s Disability ‘Denialism’
A controversial new film about a boy born paralyzed has conjured nostalgia for Soviet times, when the disabled were kept out of sight
- Text and sketches dispatch
- Text by Daria Litvinova
- Moscow, Russia
The man puts the boy down on the ground — in a puddle of dirty rainwater — and says flatly: “I am not doing anything, you’re doing everything yourself now. Go ahead. It’s 100 kilometers to home. Crawl!” And with that, he turns and leaves.
But it’s the deeper message of the film “Temporary Difficulties,” which premiered earlier this month in Russia, that has sparked such an outcry. Because even in a country where the disabled are routinely treated in ways that would shock many Americans, the film is being seen as a call for a return to an even darker past, when people with any kind of handicap were largely airbrushed from day-to-day life.
Movie critics have condemned the film, which was partly funded by the Russian Culture Ministry, as insensitive, inflammatory and down right harmful. But viewers have been more positive, with some describing it as “motivating.”
It tells the story of an average Soviet-era family, whose son is born with cerebral palsy — based on a true story, according to the filmmakers.
The mom, Rita, a beautiful woman with a kind smile, accepts the boy the way he is and does everything you would expect a caring mother to do. She takes him to doctors, holds his hand through painful physiotherapy, finds him a comfortable wheelchair and generally tries her best to make his life as easy as possible.
Ivan, the father, does not. Played by the famous Russian priest-turned-actor Ivan Okhlobystin, he refuses to acknowledge his son is sick and calls his condition “temporary difficulties.”
“What, are you saying he can’t be just like everybody else, like all ‘normal’ people?” he shouts at a colleague who has the temerity to suggest that Sasha, the boy, probably wouldn’t become an astronaut or a professional boxer.
Ivan decides to push his disabled son into becoming stronger, more self-sufficient and more “normal” — in a way that most people would regard as abuse.
Ivan decides to push his disabled son into becoming stronger, more self-sufficient and more “normal” — in a way that most people would consider as abuse
He throws away the boy’s wheelchair, forcing him to struggle with crutches. He refuses to take him to a special school for disabled kids. (When he finds out that his wife has tried to do so behind his back, it’s Sasha who stops him from hitting her — by raising his one of his crutches) He enrolls him instead in an ordinary school where his classmates mock and bully him. He forces Sasha to do chores around the house, and when the boy forgets to take out the trash, empties the bin into his bed.
When Sasha struggles — with heavy doors, steep stairways, or just eating — his father never helps him. Instead, he yells. When Sasha does well at school — so well in fact that he is the only one in class who wins a trip to a prestigious Soviet summer camp — Ivan doesn’t even smile, let alone praise him. He just stands there, silently, looking smug and angry.
Anger has been his main look ever since doctors in the maternity ward tell him there is something wrong with his baby. Without even looking at his crying wife, Ivan snaps at the doctor “Who’s at fault for this?” and storms off.
By the time 16-year-old Sasha is dropped off in the forest and told to crawl home, he is almost entirely paralyzed. But then comes the twist.
After crawling through the woods for two days and almost getting eaten by a bear, Sasha not only survives, but, in the film’s portrayal, gets on the path to becoming “normal.”
He leaves his hometown for Moscow, becomes a successful business consultant famous around the world and, just to complete this stereotypically perfect picture, gets engaged to an attractive young woman. His symptoms go away almost completely. And in the end, he concludes that it was all thanks to his father’s toughness. Sasha even apologizes for not speaking to him for 15 years.
The film, by aspiring young director Mikhail Raskhodnikov, carries several messages: weakness of any kind should not be tolerated. Being disabled, or just different, is shameful, and that one should always strive to be “normal.” If it is carried out with good intentions, being abusive can be justified, and a “tough love” approach to those who require special care works.
In some ways, these notions hardly break new ground in Russia. The disabled are already receiving plenty of “tough love.”
People with physical and mental disabilities are routinely kicked out of Russian cafes and movie theaters, on the grounds they make other customers feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. Reports of people objecting to the installation of wheelchair ramps and other aids in apartment blocks are common — often because parents don’t want their children to see disabled people.
Just last month, “Russki Reporter,” ran a column headlined “Love the invalid, scum!” in which the author attacked the idea of giving disabled people rights and special help. He reminisced nostalgically about Soviet times, when the disabled were largely kept out of sight.
“I wish that musicians were not always without hands, but with hands, too, sometimes; that artists could see at least with one eye, and a plumber didn’t have cerebral palsy — maybe just gout,” wrote Igor Naydyonov. “Before, it was shameful [to be disabled], now it’s honorable.”
“Before, it was shameful [to be disabled], now it’s honorable.” Writer Igor Naydyonov
In a sign that attitudes have indeed shifted from Soviet times, the piece provoked a backlash on social media — prompting Russki Reporter to remove the article from its website, and an apology from the editor.
But now “Temporary Difficulties” has, so to speak, picked up the baton.
Critics have panned it, among them the prominent movie writer Anton Dolin, who called it “the worst film of the year.” And even though “Temporary Difficulties” received government money, the state-news agency TASS ran a column describing it as “a crime of a film.”
“The worst film of the year.” Movie critic Anton Dolin
Disabled rights groups have also condemned the film for the attitudes it was encouraging. “We are at risk of creating a phenomenon of cerebral palsy denialism, just like HIV denialism,” wrote Yekaterina Klochkova, founder of the Physical Rehabilitation Center for People with Motor Impairment, in a column for the Miloserdie.ru charity news site.
“Parents who don’t have access to specialized support will use Okhlobystin’s character as an example. Other people would blame parents who failed to ‘cure’ their kid’s cerebral palsy for not doing enough and spoiling their children [with kindness].”
Russian movie-goers are still making their minds up, it seems. But some are clearly supportive. After its first weekend, the movie ranked fourth in Russian film website Kinopoisk’s ratings, behind two Hollywood blockbusters and a Russian wedding comedy.
It is being screened at some 600 movie theaters all across Russia — about half the number showing the number one ranking film, “The Predator,” but still indicating significant interest from distributors.
On Russia’s flagship entertainment and culture platform, “Afisha,” 29 out of 32 viewer reviews were positive at the time of writing. Similarly, on Kinopoisk, most of the comments gave the film the thumbs up.
Viewers called the film “powerful” and “motivating,” praising it for showing that “what seems impossible is, actually, possible.” Another said that “everything is temporary difficulties while you’re still alive.”
“Yes, the methods that the father used [to deal with his son’s condition] are controversial,” one viewer wrote on the Afisha site. “But they helped, didn’t they?”
If the reaction to “Temporary Difficulties” has proved one thing, it’s that in the battle for values in modern Russia, there’s still plenty of support for a return to the past.