A Conversation with Michael Dougherty…

I met Michael Dougherty way back when we were fresh-faced youths, soaking up the history, aesthetics, and mechanics of making films at the NYU film school. In the time since graduation we have reconnected on social media, and hardly a week goes by that I don’t find myself laughing or, sometimes, being so moved by something he has written that I just want to shake Hollywood by the shoulders and say: HEY!! This guy’s got something. It’s time for his big break!

A few days ago, Mike posted that he had a ticket and was getting on a plane to head to Sochi, Russia, to blog the Paralympic Games. I invited him to come on over and share some of his experiences so far. Read on for his words on Russia, blogging the Paralympics, and what’s he has seen and experienced so far…

Q (Infamous Scribbler): Tell us a little bit about yourself – what you do, projects, etc.?

A (Mike Dougherty): I’m an Irish kid from New York who was born with spina bifida. I’m in LA these days chasing the movies, mostly as a feature writer. That takes up the majority of my time, along with physical therapy at UCLA. That intersection is important. What I write reflects my own physical challenges in a way, something I wasn’t always keen to explore, but does it through the medium that means the most to me. These days, though, I find empowerment in it. I think the disability experience is worth illuminating.

Michael Dougherty at the computer in Sochi, Russia. (Courtesy photo).

Michael Dougherty at the computer in Sochi, Russia. (Courtesy photo).

Q: How did you come to be involved with the project?

A: While in physical rehab in New York, I became chummy with Carter Farmer, who works with the Wheelchair Sports Federation as a (world-class) photographer. Last year, she put out a call for writers and photographers to cover the Paralympics in Sochi. I jumped on it despite my lack of background in formal sportswriting. I figured I’d do okay with human interest. Russians have had a fascinating and gnarled history when it comes to disability and I figured I could bring some rambunctiousness to the proceedings. I didn’t hear back until Christmas but when the press credential came I knew we were on our way.

The team is comprised of nine members – 5 writers and 4 photographers. 3 of us are physically challenged which brings another level of authenticity to the reporting. We work well together because we serve the common goal of presenting the situation in as vibrant and thoughtful a way as possible.

Q: What is the purpose of the project? What do you, personally, hope to accomplish in your time in Russia?

A: The purpose of our project is to report on the Games themselves, as a way of putting emphasis on ability and how badass these athletes are at what they do, because that’s not always assumed. I think people don’t want to touch disability, either out of fear or ignorance or even a sense of not knowing how to “properly” react, as if that should matter. For me, personally, I was tasked with looking at the culture and history of Russia and disability. Russia has had a past of disability denial and so to have come around to hosting their first Paralympics is significant.

I hope to be able to write as freely as possible about what these athletes stand to change in terms of the cultural tide. I hope to encourage the notion that there’s a way of reconciling the past in order to proceed to a brighter future. It’s really up to the Russians themselves, but sport is something of a universal language like film and maybe we can come to some agreement that we’re not all that different.

The media team, hard at work in Sochi (Michael Dougherty behind the camera). (Courtesy photo).

The media team, gathered in Sochi to report on the Paralympic Games 2014 (Michael Dougherty behind the camera). (Courtesy photo).

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you face, especially as an American in Russia at this point in time?

A: The biggest challenge, apart from “da” and “Eisenstein” being the extent of my Russian, is that, as a physically challenged person, how do I write free of condemnation about a nation that, had I been born there, would have erased my existence because of my “otherness”. That’s difficult, especially in light of the abhorrent treatment of homosexuals, who reside alongside us on the fringe. Fear still holds sway even now. The punk in me wanta pick a fight—and there is a value in rage, to be sure—but it’s more productive to search for understanding. We can question and challenge, but it’s better, I think, to move away from past horror and forward toward some sense of change.

Q: What is something completely unexpected that you have found?

A: The cheerfulness. I went in with the stereotype of the Russians scowling in dark, smoky rooms discussing nuclear holocaust and swilling vodka as the rain beats the roofs and drowns out all that Russian opera. Movies informed this as a boy and “The Russian Villain” seems to be coming back now that we’ve slowed on our cinematic demonization of brown people. But, yes, the cheeriness. Every single person, from the moment I got off the plane, has been kind and helpful and warm. They’ve made honest attempts to connect and accommodate. One could be a cynic and call it a publicity act, but I think the volunteers, these compassionate young people, want to change themselves and their country’s course, and, I sleep well here believing they mean it.

Q: Anything to add?

A: I hope we’ve made a compelling case that the disability community should be accounted for as a vital facet of human existence. I hope these Games demolish stereotypes and help steal history away from those who would rather remain in the dark. I would encourage people to keep reading the posts on http://www.wheelchairsportsfederation.org and remain curious about these stories and these extraordinary people. Lord knows, I won’t keep my mouth shut well after the dust has settled. It can only push the world forward.

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