Creating a near-first person perspective places audiences in the experiences of director Reid Davenport in “I Didn’t See You There.” [SFFILM Festival]

After directing a series of shorts, filmmaker Reid Davenport jumps to features with documentary I Didn’t See You There, an experimental film exploring identity, visibility, and the continued consequences of the circus freak show from his perspective as an individual with disability. After premiering at Sundance 2022, Davenport’s I Didn’t See You There has screened at several festivals and has the next screening set for SFFILM Festival 2022. There’s a persistent incoherence, a discombobulation of ideas, propagated by Davenport’s loose cinematography and direction which may make those who suffer from motion sickness feel a little weak. However, if you can get through the prolonged periods of awkward angles, banged-about images, and seemingly unconnected concepts, you’ll come to recognize the full figure of Davenport, to see him as he is versus how the general public may typically perceive him. Messy at times and quite raw, I Didn’t See You There unsettles and disquiets, yet comes together to a peaceful and thoughtful end.

I Didn't See You There_2_photo by Reid Davenport

A scene from I DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE. Photo courtesy of director Reid Davenport.

Davenport is more of a spirit throughout the documentary rather than a constant visible aspect. The perspective of the camera is almost entirely facing away from him, capturing angles of the road and sidewalk, sky and other periphery objects, or just his general surroundings at one awkward angle or another. This seems entirely purposeful, especially when Davenport asks well into the film if we see him. By this point, he’s been mostly a vocal presence or a reflection as he travels around Oakland, California, or travels home to Bethel, Connecticut. From time to time we do get to see portions of him, though the intent is less cogent: we watch, focused on a glass, as he pours himself a drink; we observe him, only his arms visible, as he opens two doors in his apartment that swing closed, refusing to stay in their open position; or we study his eyes as he places one and then another in extreme close-up before the lens. Placing moments against other moments, such as those showing how strangers in public engage with him versus how his family does, creates an outline of an individual, one who doesn’t want to be seen by us, the audience, but one who wants to be defined (in the documentary) by how the world engages with him. So when he asks if we see him, it’s rhetorical, asking in a metaphysical sense if we can see him, to know him as best as he can present himself through the negative space of engagement.

I Didn't See You There_photo by Reid Davenport

A scene from I DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE. Photo courtesy of director Reid Davenport.

The continued chaos in the imagery, the apparent lack of cohesion in the patterns Davenport proclaims to watch to capture on camera, makes it seem (at first) that there’s no real plan to the documentary. On the one hand, it evokes cinéma vérité, presenting a perspective unique to Davenport. Except what we see is mostly fast moving images in close-up, dizzying to take in and often overwhelming. Where things come into focus is the addition of the circus portion, introduced well into the film as something that tracks Davenport’s movements whenever he leaves his home. From its introduction, there’s suddenly an antagonist: the idea of the disabled as entertainment or fetish versus people. Davenport offers history lessons on the circus — identifying former participants in circus freak shows and discussing P.T. Barnum’s influence — which may seem strange for him to know, at first, until one considers that both Davenport and Barnum share the same hometown. Once more the negative space takes hold, the notion that Davenport must have given quite a bit of thought to what he may have been perceived as during the 19th Century, what kind of life he might’ve led had he not been born in the here and now. Although, given the few interactions we see with strangers, perhaps he’s experiencing a similar life anyway, between the possible aspirational view of his neighbor, seen as in need of help just by existing, or moments in which people talk with him as though he’s in the way simply by being. This is, of course, contrasted in the scenes with his mother, sister, niece, and nephew, who extend him the same benefits anyone would want for themselves. He’s not talked down to, diminished or belittled — he just is. In these few scenes, you get a sense of the loneliness Davenport likely feels in Oakland (something he discusses a little bit since he lives on a different coast from his family in pursuit of being an artist). It’s not that Davenport is alone, but the way people engage him in Oakland versus how his family does is striking, even amongst the most well-intentioned.

I Didn't See You There_director Reid Davenport

Director Reid Davenport. Photo courtesy of SFFILM Festival.

There are moments throughout I Didn’t See You There that were tough to watch, but it had everything to do with the cinematography and my motion sickness. Davenport’s freeform direction and staging of shots is intended to be unconventional, focused on lengthy sequences involving visual chaos. In combination with the interactions we see and Davenport’s narration, a larger story about who Davenport is comes into focus. The trick, though, is making sure you’re not too disoriented to miss it. In my case, being fortunate enough to watch from home, I was able to pause the film, take some Tylenol, and grab a light snack before continuing. This helped the nausea dissipate and allow me to focus, once more, on the story at hand. It’s important to be aware of the art you engage with and how it might impact your ability to take part in it whether it’s a strobing affect, bodily harm, or, in this case, singular cinematography seemingly designed to offer an uncomfortable perspective. When able to get past that, though, who Davenport is comes well into view in a collage of shadow, introspection, and familial love.

Screening during the 2022 San Francisco International Film Festival.

Currently screening at select film festivals.

For more information, head to the official I Didn’t See You There SFFILM film page or the I Didn’t See You There website.

Final Score: 4 out of 5.

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