The award-winning short Innocence from writer-director Ben Reid is redefining Down Syndrome representation in film. The crime drama follows a young man with Down Syndrome who lives in a care home where his brother works. Another worker is found dead, prompting a detective to investigate, and shocking truths unravel from there. Ben Reid shared his goal for the film to change the perception of people with Down Syndrome in an interview with CinemaBlend.
Ben Reid’s real life brother Tom has Down Syndrome, and it was Tom who initially inspired Reid to write this story. The pair grew up going to the movie theater quite often, and as they got older they noticed that they were not seeing anyone with Down Syndrome in the films. Here is what Reid shared of this realization and his brother's reaction:
This understandably was a frustration to my brother, you know, to imagine if you never saw anybody who looked like or talked like you on screen, that would feel like you yourself would be marginalized from society, which was very much the case. I think what’s on screen in many ways reflects what’s happening in society and the mentalities of society at large. And so I thought a way of rectifying that was to give a character to my brother that would show what he wanted to see on screen and what he felt was lacking.
Ben Reid mentioned having come across some films and some TV shows which feature characters with Down Syndrome, though he and his brother Tom felt the characters were not portrayed accurately, according to Tom’s experience. Innocence is unique and original because it shows a dark side to the character with Down Syndrome. The audience is easily able to relate to the character’s thought process when he is faced with a difficult decision. As Reid said,
It’s often the case when you do see a character with Down Syndrome on screen, what you see is a depiction of somebody who is saintly, who is very sweet-natured; they’re kind of not portrayed as complex characters that have anger, frustration, wants, needs, desires, the capability to do good things as well as the capabilities for bad things. And this was something which my brother felt was not representative of who he was, or who people with Down Syndrome at large are, because just like me and you, they’re very complex individuals who have capacity to do good things and bad things.
In the film, though the main character has Down Syndrome, that is not the driving force of the character or the story. The character is driven by his own very human feelings and desires, both positive and negative, and the story at large is a murder investigation. This makes the story relatable on various levels, and allows those watching who have no personal experience with Down Syndrome to relate to someone who does. It’s a really beautiful thing Ben Reid has created. In the director’s own words,
One of the things I wanted to do was play with the public’s perception of disability. One of the inspirations of this film was The Usual Suspects, where Kevin Spacey’s character is pretending to have a disability because he knows he will, in the mind of the detective, appear to be weak and feeble. I thought rather than having someone pretend to have a disability, how about flip that around to somebody who does have a disability but isn’t weak and feeble, and uses the prejudice or misconceptions people have about those with disabilities against them.
I think it’s safe to say that Ben Reid accomplished his goal. Innocence has been selected for over twenty film festivals, including Foyle Film Festival, Aesthetica Film Festival and was long-listed for a 2020 BAFTA. The live-action short has won numerous high profile film awards including the Best Short Film at the London Lift-Off Film Festival and the Don Quixote award at the OSCAR qualifying 60th Kraków Film Festival. This has paved the way for star, Tommy Jessop, to become the first-ever actor with Down syndrome to be selected for BAFTA Elevate.