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Reel Life: odyssey of a disabled hellion

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Late one night in Minneapolis ten summers ago Billy Golfus was riding home on his motor scooter. He came to a halt at a stoplight. Suddenly the car behind him lunged forward, hurtling him 67 feet to the pavement. Golfus wasn't wearing a helmet; he slipped into a coma that lasted more than a month. Adding insult to injury, the cops investigating the accident ticketed him for having an expired city sticker. Thus began a series of painful ironies of coping with disability while battling bureaucratic indifference, some of which are recounted in When Billy Broke His Head . . . and Other Tales of Wonder, an hour-long documemoir recently completed by Golfus in collaboration with Chicago filmmaker David Simpson.

"We didn't want to go for the cliche of a cripple's inspirational story," Simpson remembers, "even though Billy did make a remarkable recovery. I encouraged him to take the first-person-narrative approach, to vent his anger at all the prejudices against the disabled." Golfus agrees. "David and I want the audience to understand that disability is not just a medical fact," he says. "It also has a political dimension." Simpson, who holds an MFA in filmmaking from the School of the Art Institute, first met Golfus five years ago when Golfus took an introductory video-production course from him at the University of Minnesota. The class assignment was for each student to make a five-minute tape set in the bedroom. "In Billy's case, of course, he wanted to put on tape the inconveniences of being disabled, his coordination and memory problems, his crankiness."

By then Golfus, partially rehabilitated though still unemployed, was pursuing a masters degree in communications at the university. His life had changed dramatically. At the time of the accident he was a popular DJ on the Twin Cities' alternative-rock circuit and a producer for the local National Public Radio station. He emerged from the hospital with a host of disorders. One consequence of the brain damage he suffered--officially diagnosed as hemiplegia, a closed-head injury--is an utter lack of inhibition. "The inhibition area of his brain was impaired. He really speaks his mind," Simpson explains. "That turns a lot of people off, and I suspect that's one reason why no one wants to hire him. But that's what attracted me to him. I found him totally refreshing."

Simpson suggested the idea of an autobiographical video essay to Golfus and then put him in touch with a fellow filmmaker. "After moving back to Chicago, I got a call from Billy one day," Simpson says. "He complained about not being able to work with that guy. Then he told me that the footage they had taken was being shipped to me. I had become his partner."

In November 1992, after receiving a generous PBS grant, Simpson and Golfus embarked in earnest on their documentary; they also decided that it would be in the form of a road trip--Golfus's journey through the segregated world of the disabled from coast to coast. "A political odyssey too," Simpson says, "as it turned out. Billy is a supreme individualist; he rejects any organized ideology. But in the course of making this film, his political awareness was heightened by the overt discriminations everywhere against the disabled. There was also a sense of frustration. He realized he might've had enough talent to be a top reporter and commentator, but that was not to be."

In Billy, edited down from 50 hours of tape, the raspy-voiced Golfus interviews a diverse array of disabled people who view their conditions with humor and forthrightness. There's the legally-blind Kay Gaddis, a former Chicago Symphony musician, who mocks the welfare agencies for requiring her to read reams of documents. There's Ed Roberts, paralyzed from the neck down, who cheerfully reminisces about his triumphs over bureaucratic red tape and dire predictions. "Doctors told my parents that I'd be a vegetable all my life," he harrumphs. "If so, I'm an artichoke."

Golfus also visits sites of important disability-rights protests, including the State of Illinois building, where a boisterous 1992 demonstration demanding access to public space captured the national media's attention.

The private side of 49-year-old Golfus's life can be glimpsed in the tender scenes where he and his seventysomething father fret over each other's future. "Those were the only times Billy got sentimental," Simpson says. "Otherwise, his mood shifted between compassion and anger. He even got angry at me many times. He often forgot the structure of the piece; he had trouble concentrating; it took him a long time to write the narration. I'd say, 'Just trust me!' That triggered something in him. 'It's my life. Don't tell me what I should do.' I can understand his behavior. For ten years, a slew of professional do-gooders have been telling him what to do. He must be sick and tired of that. I had to fight with him about objectivity too. He obviously has a chip on his shoulder. I understand he was tough to get along with even before the accident. When you watch the film, you're likely to say, 'Hey Billy, you have a bad attitude, maybe that's why you haven't found a job.' So, in one scene, as a rhetorical device, I have Billy addressing that. But I'm still convinced that he doesn't see that as a problem." Says Golfus, "Some of my friends consider me a lot sweeter than I was before."

Simpson doesn't think he can ever work with Golfus again. Yet he is quite pleased with the tension on the screen that results from their unique collaboration. "Because of the nature of Billy's story, we agreed early on that he must have control over the content, he'd be the coproducer. In Billy the eyewitness account lends an urgency to the disabled civil-rights movement. I told Billy that he should take the video to schools, to inform people of the plight of our largest and least visible minority."

Billy will premiere tomorrow at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division. Both Simpson and Golfus will be on hand for a discussion after the screening. Starting time is 8 PM. Tickets are $5, $2.50 for members. For more info call 384-5533.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bill Stamets, Steven D. Arazmus.

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