I'm Here It's Me Can You See explores the effects of chronic illness on people's lives through the stories of two women with Parkinson's Disease.
As a child, I spent a lot of time with my Aunt Clara. It was the 1960s. Clara had Parkinson’s Disease and was visibly disabled. I was terrified of her. In 1996 my close friend Pamela Quinn, a dancer and performance artist, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Pam has two sons. They have only known her with the disease. In the years preceding her diagnosis, Pam and her husband, Michael O’Connor, made a series of performance pieces that had themes of illness, damage and isolation.
The film tells the stories of Pam and Clara from multiple perspectives, weaving them together using hand drawn animation, manipulated live action footage and archival performance videos. The carefully placed juxtapositions are sometimes startling and uncomfortable, at other times humorous and heartwarming, reflecting the conflicted feelings we have toward disease and our mortality. I'm Here It's Me Can You See is a deep and thought-provoking journey, exposing in a touching and compassionate way the qualities that make us human.
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One of the most disturbing and lingering memories of my childhood is the time I spent with my Aunt Clara. My mother was divorced and worked, so she frequently left me in the care of my aunt despite my protests. My aunt was a stern woman. I don't remember her ever being playful or laughing. She also had Parkinson's Disease and was visibly disabled, which frightened me.
I grew up in Australia, left after college and landed in New York in 1978. I worked as a graphic designer, made short animated films and played guitar in a band. I met Pamela Quinn and her husband Michael O'Connor in the late 1980s and we have remained close friends ever since. Pam was a dancer, Michael, an actor. They were making performance pieces together that combined dance and theater. Their work was beautifully constructed with powerful themes and they were always imbued with humor.
When Pam first told me she had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, the memories of my aunt came flooding back. I held myself together on the phone and broke down afterwards. Pam was an incredible dancer. Her happiness and sense of self were closely tied to her physical movement. I couldn't imagine how she would cope with a life-changing disease.
As with everything Pam does, she confronted the disease with courage, wisdom and grace. Since her diagnosis she had her second child and has continued earning a living doing various forms of bodywork, and teaching movement to other Parkinson’s patients. As her disease progressed, she has devised ways to circumvent the physical symptoms through her incredible perceptiveness of the interplay between body and mind. Despite her extraordinary ability to allay the symptoms, the emotional toll is undeniable. Yet she remains cheerful and uses the illness to explore herself and aspects of life she would never have been able to do otherwise.
Being close to two people with the disease and having such different experiences led me to examine how a chronic disease can affect the person who has it, as well as how the world perceives the visibly disabled. I started formulating a concept for the film and was delighted that Pam was interested. I taped many interviews with her. Her honesty and openness were remarkable; her insights and outlook inspiring. As the story of my aunt was told from a child's perspective, I asked permission to interview Pam's sons. They were also very forthcoming.
I asked Pam and Michael if they had any tapes of their performances as I thought I could use some footage of Pam dancing before her diagnosis. They gave me piles of old VHS tapes. They hadn't thought about them in years and hadn't considered what I may discover. In addition to finding fantastic footage of Pam dancing, I realized that a number of their pieces had themes of disability and loss. They gave me permission to excerpt these.
All these fragments – the interviews, my recounting of times I spent with my aunt, the performance videos, footage I shot of Pam, drawings I made about my aunt and animated – became the dancers that I carefully choreographed to become I'm Here It's Me Can You See.