Last evening Connie and I attended the world premier of a documentary film entitled “A Friend Indeed: the Bill Sackter Story” which was held at the University of Iowa’s Hancher Center for the Performing Arts.
The story of Bill Sackter’s life and times first received national attention in the early 1980’s when a TV film with Mickey Rooney dramatized Bill’s journey from neglect and institutionalization to a featured place in the heart of a community.
The documentary, directed by Lane Wyrick, brings superbly forward the archival film footage of the real life Bill who captured the hearts of a Midwestern college town and then the whole state of Iowa and finally the nation.
Bill Sackter’s story provides a series of intersecting narratives about people with mental disabilities and the proscenium stage of America’s streets.
Abandoned to a Minnesota hospital for “imbeciles” when still a young child, Bill grew up experiencing the inhumane treatment that was so often “part and parcel” of America’s residential institutions for people with disabilities.
Through a series of fortunate and almost happenstance circumstances Bill meets a young college student “Barry” who befriends him and who subsequently becomes Bill’s legal guardian—moving him in the process to Iowa City.
These details are likely familiar to anyone who has seen the original movie starring Mickey Rooney and Dennis Quaid.
Lane Wyric’s documentary aims to bring the real Bill—who was affectionately known as “Wild Bill”—the “man in the coffee shop”, purveyor of java and good cheer, impromptu harmonica player, inveterate local talker—and in so doing the film allows those who knew Bill personally to reflect on the impact he had on hundreds of students and residents of Iowa City.
The film is tender, achingly sad, poignant, witty, and altogether charming. I do think that owing to some inexperience dealing with disability as a historical subject, Lane Wyrick misses the opportunity to contextualize the history of disability incarceration and to in turn reflect on the contemporary problems faced by pwds who are still being hospitalized against their wills. The drawback to this documentary may rest in its deep affection for Iowa City’s collective love of this almost forgotten man—and so by turns, it doesn’t delve into the symbolic nature of disability and the industries of medicalization or charity that still haunt many.
Still it is a beautiful film and it helps us to hold a sweet man in our hearts.
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“A Friend Indeed - The Bill Sackter Story”
Cross-posted on Planet of the Blind