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‘The Ability Exchange,’ Indiewire’s September Project of the Month, is a ‘One-Man Band’ Empathy Engine

'The Ability Exchange,' Indiewire's September Project of the Month, is a 'One-Man Band' Empathy Engine

For Bing Wang, making a documentary has been an all-or-nothing process. Between the inclusive approach to his subjects and his assumption of an enormous majority of production roles, Wang has taken on a hefty set of responsibilities with his new film “The Ability Exchange.”

Earlier this spring, Wang returned to NYU, his alma mater, to document the work being done at the ABILITY Lab. There, researchers and instructors in the Disability Studies department are working on ways to increase public understanding of the issues facing those within the disability community. The observational nature of Wang’s initial interactions with these efforts became a major point of emphasis in both the production and promotion of the film. 

Even though the work that Wang was doing was largely solo, he drew on a strong spirit of collaboration once he was through gathering footage. Upon completion of principal photography, Wang launched a successful Kickstarter to raise finishing funds. Following a successful showing in Project of the Week voting, “The Ability Exchange” was selected by our readers as Indiewire’s Project of the Month at the end of September voting. 

We recently chatted with Wang via email about his plans for film and what it takes to make a documentary with a crew of one.

What’s next for the project?

Well, that’s actually a tough question because there is so much that we still need to do to get the film finished and released. The immediate next step for the film is post-production. I finished filming all of the footage several months ago and have just completed a successful Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign that I am very proud of (we were actually able to raise over 170% of our initial funding goal). For me personally, I will now start focusing on the rewarding grind of editing the footage. Also, because of the funds we raised on Kickstarter, we will be in a position to hire a great team for the other aspects of the post-production process (i.e. color correction, animation, music composition and sound mixing, etc.). The goal is to finish the final film before the summer of 2016 so that we can release it during the 25th anniversary year of the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

Once we are a little further along in the post-production process, we will start working on distribution. First, we will put together a festival circuit. Our hope is that we will be able to present the film at both festivals that focus on disability issues as well as more mainstream festivals. It is our belief that the matters we present in the film (i.e. that patience, empathy and resourcefulness can, in many instances, be even more effective in helping to communicate with people with disabilities than enhancements in technology) will appeal to the general population.

Disability issues really do touch everyone’s lives in one way or another and the statistics as to how this community is presented in mainstream media are staggering. About 56.7 million people—19 percent of the U.S. population—had a disability in 2010. However, characters with disabilities are “invisible” on major broadcast networks. Out of 647 regular characters who appear on scripted prime-time television, only five (less than 1%) had disabilities in 2010, and these roles are generally played by actors without physical disabilities. We are hoping that our film will help to fill this void with a more honest and thought-provoking portrayal of this community. Once the festival run nears completion, we will look at other avenues of distribution. Given that this is a “classroom documentary,” we believe that educational institutions and organizations will certainly be one such avenue.

Finally, increasing our outreach and social media is an ongoing effort. We are constantly meeting with and reaching out to different organizations that we think have a mission that aligns with the message of the film to see if we can work together in a creative manner in presenting the film. We’ve recently met with United Cerebral Palsy of New York City as well as the New York City Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities and have a lot of cool potential concepts that hopefully will come to fruition.

What are the biggest challenges for the project?

First of all, the film adopts a cinema vérité approach (no interviews or voiceovers will be included in this observational film). Related to that concept, the film follows an immersive classroom environment where I was always present and inherently was learning along with the participants in the class. I would often discuss the very many interesting and important topics covered in the class with the students, the disabled consultants, and the professor, Allan Goldstein.

It was a challenge to balance my identity as a fellow “learning buddy” with that of an observer/documentarian who did not want to influence the class, but rather capture an honest depiction of how this immersive experience plays itself out.  

The other major challenge for me of this project is how to properly represent the disability community, particularly in the vérité context. This film is about how people with differences interact and connect with one another. This is a community that is proud of its heritage and culture and I certainly want to make sure that this work does not come across as patronizing in any way. While staying true to the craft, I cede some control of the narrative and the message to the audience, with the hope that the audience will be engaged enough by what they are seeing that they will further investigate and interpret, just like the students in the film who gradually transform their “sympathy” to a more nuanced empathetic understanding.
Further, the topic of “disability” is really broad, so putting together a film that investigates disability issues can expose some complexities and conflicts. For example, the film follows a filmmaking competition arch, and one of the student-consultant projects is about a disabled sports fan’s fantasy, which raises an interesting question, “What does it mean to win?”

Some argue that participation is more important than victory, while others believe that a double standard in a case that involves people with disabilities (PwDs) seems patronizing and offensive. Other heated debates in the class include the use of language (i.e. many people prefer “people-first” language while some activists choose to use “disability-first” language to show disability pride), the relation between religion and self-advocacy, etc.. It may take time for the audience to get to know the individuals in the film beyond labels such as “disabled” and “abled.” Can they look farther than these stereotypes at each character’s individuality, including preferences that should be respected, three-dimensional feelings, and unique life experiences? I hope a documentary like “The Ability Exchange” can honestly present these different points of view to the audience and inspire an exchange of perspectives that both the mainstream and the disability community can learn so much from. 

What are your goals?

At the core, I want to spread the message of the film–that empathy and communication can go as far as technological innovation in crossing the divide between typical people and PwDs and that, in many ways, the concept of “disability” is a social construct. The students in “The Ability Exchange”—future engineers, architects and designers—endeavor to understand what it means to be disabled by asking, observing, collaborating, and sometimes debating with their consultants. They explore territory outside the boundaries of a medical perspective that prioritizes the “normalizing” power of technology and endorses “ablism.” As I mention above, the disability community is grossly underrepresented in the mainstream media and I really hope that this film can be looked at as a work that helps (even if only a little bit) to fill that communicational void and to provide an authentic, precise and compelling perspective. 

Beyond those general goals, my hope is that the film will also empower the disability community and, if the film succeeds in provoking its viewers to rethink current disability management techniques, a shift from narrow attempts to fix individual physical problems to maximizing the person’s independence and community engagement. I am also hopeful that more educational institutions will consider utilizing the unique experiential teaching approach presented in the film in other fields such as inclusive design and civil engineering as it is my belief it can be extremely effective. 
Finally, from a very personal point of view, I was born and raised in China where general views of those with disabilities are even more out of date and troublesome than they are in the United States.

Through social media, my Kickstarter campaign and other avenues (including the Project of the Week campaign), I have been somewhat successful in introducing the project and its concepts to a number of people in my home country. I hope that my film can provoke those who see the film to reflect on reality and relevance so that it can help to influence a sociocultural shift in respect of these issues. 

What do you wish someone had told you before you started?

So many things!!! To this point, I am basically a “one man band” on this production. My most recent film was done in connection with my Masters at NYU Tisch and the Anthropology Department. I also recently served as the Associate Producer for Ursula Liang’s award-winning documentary “9-Man.” On both of these projects I had more resources at my disposal. On “The Ability Exchange,” I did all of the filming and editing and have done all of the social media, outreach and fundraising on my own.

The good news is, with today’s technology, there are so many venues to get your ideas out there and to build an engaged community. It’s crazy when I conceptualize that the majority of my fundraising and outreach on this film has been accomplished through sitting in front of a computer for eight hours a day growing the social network for the film. With that said, those eight hours are a lost resource and can’t be used for film editing, etc… I’m certainly excited that the successful Kickstarter campaign will allow me to hire some additional team members to help elevate the production. Also, I can’t overstate how much I learn on a daily basis as a result of this project. So… I guess my answer to your question is that I wish someone would have told me (or someday will tell me) where to find more hours in the day!

For more information on upcoming projects, see our daily updates on Project of the Day. You can also submit your project for consideration here.

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