Associate Professor Sachi Cunningham Releases First Feature-Length Documentary
By Lux Montes
Throughout her career, Sachi Cunningham has always been attracted to individuals who subvert expectations. She has documented various performance and visual artists, along with covering hard news like the first presidential election in Afghanistan for PBS FRONTLINE / World. She was recruited to start the Los Angeles Times’ first video team. Cunningham also is a trailblazing big wave photographer, focusing her lens on female surfers in the male-dominated field. On sabbatical for Fall 2020 and Spring 2021, this associate professor is celebrating her first feature-length documentary film: Crutch.
Over 20 decades in the making, Crutch tells the story of Bill Shannon, the skate punk and breakdancer turned multidisciplinary artist. Shannon has Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, which causes osteonecrosis of the hip, and he incorporates his rocker-bottom crutches into his performances. His movements are so graceful, sure, and confident that audiences often don’t believe his diagnosis.
“You should get rid of the crutches,” one of his breakdance opponents sneer at him in disbelief in the film. His work constantly challenges the preconceived notions abled-bodied people have toward people with disabilities, culminating in his street performance art. Consent, communication, and the importance of personhood are other evergreen themes in his work.
Cunningham and Shannon actually attended the same elementary school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with Cunningham two grades behind Shannon. While working in Hollywood as an assistant to director-slash-producer Barry Levinson and Demi Moore, Cunningham was motivated to apply to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism with a documentary about Shannon in mind.
The documentary’s post-production journey was funded in part by their Kickstarter campaign. Stephen Nemeth, who formed and heads up Rhino Films, and has produced films like Dogtown and Z-Boys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is on board as an executive producer for the documentary. Much like the Dogtown and Z-Boys documentary, Crutch uses archival footage ranging from 8mm to Hi-8 to VHS to HD.
Cunningham and her co-director/producer, Chandler Evans (Vayabobo), met while they were undergrads at Brown University. The pair would build the years of archival footage by tag-teaming the coverage, following Shannon’s career from basement hip hop performances, to choreographing for Cirque du Soleil, to his New York street performances.
Shannon’s story, punctuated by his innovative movement all while on his rocker-bottom crutches, is inspirational but his multidisciplinary body of work, his creation of performance art out of performative assumptions is where his heart lies, and what the film ultimately shows.
“I hope the film flips the script on the traditional triumph over adversity narrative so often associated with stories about people with disabilities and makes people think twice about the assumptions they bring to any social interaction with people that they view as different than themselves,” says Cunningham.
Crutch premiered as one of the top 10 most popular films at DOC NYC and was a runner up for the Audience Award. The festival is the country’s largest documentary film festival with over 200 films. The festival was held virtually Nov. 11-29, but this is just the beginning of what Cunningham hopes will be an exciting year of film festival screenings.