Inspiration Award Winner: Whirlpool
Helen Keller is an iconic figure in the civil rights movement. The American, deafblind activist worked with ten US Presidents, and was a prolific writer and campaigner for social equality.
But despite being a household name, relatively little is still known about her life – a fact that inspired the filmmakers of the winning Inspiration Award (public category) film, Whirlpool, at this year's AHRC Research in Film Awards.
"I loved learning about Helen Keller growing up but never knew what happened in her adulthood,” says filmmaker Kate Baxter.
“I am still surprised no-one has made a film about Helen Keller’s adult life [before us]. She was witty, capable, and full of connections. She was inadvertently running her country back in her day. Take one look at her legacy and it becomes clear she put her working relationships with over ten US presidents and other world leaders to good use. I am also fascinated with her experience living without sight and sound.”
Co-director Elizabeth Dixon says that as soon as she saw Kate's plans for a film about Keller’s adult experience she wanted to get involved. “It immediately struck a chord and it felt imperative that it was made,” she says.
“I was fuelled by the feeling that it was an injustice to the world that this woman’s story had not yet been told.”
Helen Keller ranks fifth in the 'Most Widely Admired People of the 20th Century' just below Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Albert Einstein, according to a US-based Gallup poll.
“People with disabilities are hugely underrepresented on screen, but Helen Keller's story is one that allows us to explore the realities of being deaf or blind, and disability at large, while maintaining a focus on a complex character who is simply human,” says Kate.
“Having a story with so much relevance to the world at large, we were able to communicate much of our research about her, but also about disability through her. Although our category was the public category with no university attachment required, we still found it valuable to focus on research."
The two filmmakers pride themselves on their exhaustive investigation into Helen's life, and alongside reading all her books and most of her 700 public articles, journals, interviews, and documentaries; they also immersed themselves in trying to understand her experience of living with a disability.
"Today, 90% of data that we process as humans is processed visually-and therefore, film is a powerful tool and the most likely tool others are using for education, entertainment and more,” says Kate.
“It is encouraging that so many researchers, academics and storytellers are making socially responsible and well-researched work."
Elizabeth Dixon says: “It’s essential to know what you want to say, and find the best and most authentic way of portraying that.
"The themes in the film are strikingly relevant for today's audience. I personally am passionate about telling the story through a deaf and blind woman's point of view, and the creative scope it brings to filmmaking.”
"So many people feel they know Helen Keller very well, but every single audience has expressed shock at the information we've found and shared,”
Drawing on this vast body of research has enabled Kate and Elizabeth to bring a new sensibility to their recreation of Helen Keller's life.
"So many people feel they know Helen Keller very well, but every single audience has expressed shock at the information we've found and shared,” says Kate. “After watching, many audience members have a set of questions to ask about Helen, her culture, her family, and what else she sought to change."
The filmmakers hope that, beyond inspiring individuals to be more open-minded about other people and their different abilities, they hope Whirlpool will give them a platform to make a feature film soon.
“With a feature film script, backed with plentiful research and great drama, we have high hopes,” says Elizabeth.
It's clear that this recognition has been a huge boost for the project: "Winning the Inspiration Award means that Helen Keller's deeds and accomplishments, once buried in history, are now highlighted in media. It has already impacted our efforts in creating the feature film about this incredible moment in her life, and has wider ramifications on society and how people with disabilities, or different abilities, are both perceived and represented."
Read more about the winning films from the 2017 AHRC Research in Film Awards.