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Thessaloniki Film Festival: Wisdom From The Wheelchair: "Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel"

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My favorite at the festival: Simone de Vries' "Touch Me Someplace I Can Feel", featuring paraplegic John Callahan, who became a biting-humor cartoonist following his accident. Advertised in the program brochure as "a film on willpower", thankfully this doc is not that at all: it's about how the genius of an artist comes to the fore, despite or because of a trapping situation, in this case, the artist's body.

The movie begins with the phone ringing. An answering machine goes off: "Hi, I'm too depressed to answer the phone. At the gunshot, please leave a message." Hence begins the alert journey into Callahan's inner world: macabre, biting, laugh-out-loud, and sharply creative to the core. "Help!" reads one cartoon, featuring a beggar on a sidewalk. " Blind, black and can't even sing!" Another features a handicapped man with no arms saying: "I need a hug." The Wilamette Week, which publishes Callahan's cartoons, gets vehement complaints for this politically incorrect humor, and continues to publish him with great pleasure.

DeVries' camera follows Callahan around town, in his wheelchair, as he scribbles cartoons, speaks to random teenagers, sings poetic songs in a sincere voice, and explains how much he hates the "feminine" gaze of pity women give the disabled. Callahan refuses pity nor does he take the stiff upper lip. He does not accept his tragedy: he welcomes it." "I hate victims," he says, with steady bright blue eyes. "Everything is there to wake you up to who you are."

He is quite calm and thoughtful as he gives his philosophy--something that evidently came to him over the years. "Think: it's not happening to me. It's happening for me. Surrender. Put yourself into your spirit. Thoughts are so misleading. Giving up is one of the best things you can do. Surrender to your true nature. You have peace finally."

It was chance that led John Callahan, at age 21, to accept a ride from a drunk in a bar, who later drove into a pole. It was also chance that brought the director to find Callahan as her subject. "I read an article in an English newspaper on John," de Vries explained. "There was a photograph I found intriguing. John with a red cat on his lap, orange hair, orange sunglasses. I immediately liked his humor. I bought his autobiography, Don't worry, he won't get far on foot, and couldn't put it down....I felt all sorts of things, pity, admiration, shame (shame I was bitching about my miserable hairdo that morning!). Back then I didn't even know about the music!"

Callahan admits that before his accident he was an alcoholic, had been since he was fourteen. Following his accident, he soon realized that was worse than being a paraplegic was being a drunk, and he quit.

As for being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he says: "It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship with my spirit."

He adds: "You get used to everything--except Bush's administration. If you get used to that, you really have no feelings."