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Trevor Blake: So You Want to Meet an Alien? The Works of Nabil Shaban

The Skin Horse
1982
Written by Nigel Evans and Nabil Shaban
Featuring Nabil Shaban with Nick Finden, Tony Gerrard, Tina Leslie, Kathleen Venner

A corrected and expanded version of this essay appears in Confessions of a Failed Egoist (Baltimore: Underworld Amusements 2014).

Documentaries on the disabled can be difficult to watch. Not in the sense of such films being ugly. Documentaries on the disabled can be difficult to watch because one simply can’t find them. Frederick Wiseman shot Titicut Follies in 1967. The film depicts the lives of inmates at the Bridgewater State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Their lives were made up of being bullied, forced feed, sprayed with a high-pressure water hose and confined in unlit windowless rooms. In 1968 the film was removed from distribution and all copies were ordered destroyed by Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Harry Kalus.  Judge Kalus said he acted in the interest of the privacy of the inmates. The following year in that the film was allowed to be shown but only to health care professionals. Wiseman appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which declined to review the case. According to Wikipedia, “the dispute marked the first known instance in the history of the American film industry that a film was banned from general distribution for reasons other than obscenity, immorality or national security.” Superior Court Judge Andrew Meyer lifted the ban on the film in 1991, on the condition “a brief explanation shall be included in the film that changes and improvements have taken place at Massachusetts Correctional Institution Bridgewater since 1966.” Today you can buy a copy of Titicut Follies from Zipporah Films, Inc.

No such luck for The Skin Horse. Channel 4 (formerly Central Television) commissioned the 1982 film but does not sell it. No one sells it, not legally. Worldcat does not list it as existing in the interlibrary loan system.  Exactly one private library has it in their collection. If you are exceptionally fortunate you may have seen it one of the few times it has been broadcast on television. The documentary isn’t banned, it is merely unavailable.

The Skin Horse is a documentary by and about disabled people and their sex lives. Not their secret longing and private thoughts, although these are part of the film. This is a documentary about sex, sex among the disabled, sex between the disabled and the able.

Co-author and narrator Nabil Shaban does not skirt around the issue. The Skin Horse is an adult film, made by and for adults able to speak most clearly about themselves. Perhaps mere suggestiveness would not have succeeded in this film. Perhaps like the Last Poets or Valarie Solanas, the time for subtlty ended long ago for Shaban. When a person is just a little different from the norm, suggestiveness and being coy are more common. When we find a birthmark or personality quirk in a partner it stands out for a moment and then is gone. When one or one’s partner isn’t even considered fully human by some people, the time to beat around the bush ends. The average life span of the disabled is shorter than that of the non-disabled. The average screen time of the disabled is measured in minutes-per-decade compared to the screen time of the non-disabled. A wink and a nod just isn’t going to cut it. These are stories told once, and there’s no follow-up special presentation later on. The Skin Horse is honest in a way most sex documentaries only aspire to be honest.

The honesty begins with a discussion of beauty.  In antiquity philosophers claimed physical beauty was a virtue, like honesty or courage. Deviation from the form was either a punishment or a moral weakness. The etymology of the word monster is that of a beast sent by the gods as a warning. In the 21st Century other theories of beauty predominate. The Skin Horse speaks of four theories of beauty.  All quotes are from The Skin Horse.

Is beauty like the sun, radiating from a center and growing cold with distance? Some sections of The Skin Horse support this classic idea. Nabil: “Most disabled or deformed people I met at special school, sheltered workshop or crip college couldn’t wait to go to bed with an able-bodied person. I know that to be true of me.”

Is beauty is in the eye of the beholder? Perhaps disability does not matter. Those who are left handed tend towards mental illness, higher rates of suicide and imprisonment and shorter life spans. But being left handed is not seen as a disability. Nor are glasses on a person with a slight vision problem. Perhaps what we see as beauty or as a disability is arbitrary, a frame of reference we are free to modify or reject. This was the thinking behind the founding of the Outsiders in 1979. The Outsiders “is a vibrant social and peer support network of disabled people. We are many different things to our many members. [...] Whenever possible, Outsiders works together with other groups to campaign for the acceptance of disabled people as sexual partners.” The Skin Horse includes interviews with a founder of The Outsiders: “If I’d thought about it before I started I don’t think I would have ever dared to do it because I never really thought it would work.  Everyone said it wouldn’t work. But actually, however disabled you are you are still able to love somebody and be loved. So the most amazing marriages and… parings… have taken place. Dispite the fact that they might not only be disabled but also homosexual. Goodness knows, they’re just like anybody else.” The Skin Horse also includes interviews with a member of Outsiders, Jack: “Everyone’s got ability and disability.”

Is beauty a spiritual force? Is beauty to the body as the mind is to the brain? Perhaps beauty and disability are not part of us at all, but a shadow cast by an inner light. Most of the speakers in The Skin Horse hold this theory of beauty. Nabil is a keen researcher into the paranormal, psychic powers, UFOs and utopian politics. Open the gates to a single taboo and the rest come marching in. Nabil: “From childhood we learn that there is always more than meets the eye, that external appearances are misleading, that what exists within us all is always greater than the sum of the parts. [...] To admit love is to admit there is more to appearances. And to admit that we all have to work much harder at being human. We have to consider not only the body but also the soul.” Another man speaks of sex as a spiritual experience rather than a physical one: “I know the joy, the contentment, the feeling of spirituality, the utter relief from the limitations of my body which comes from sex. Just calling it sex is a very limiting word. It’s far more than people think with just one word. My body is very limiting but in sex I feel complete freedom.” Tina Leslie talks about the difference between her body and her self. “Sometimes I eat in front of a mirror to see the mask as other people see me. And try to see their feelings.  But this is what they see. It’s got nothing to do with me, the real me, a lover sees that, the real me. But I still never quite, quite believe it. But my god, I’d rather this than some celibate martyrdom. [...] Some people see me as an ugly thing. They can’t see me as a being, and as a sexual person, never. Christ, I don’t mind being seen like that. What’s the point of militant feminism? I like men. I don’t want to take refuge in something disabled women use as an excuse suppress their sexuality.”

Is beauty a fetish? Are some beautiful because they are different? Thousands of gigabytes of disability pornography are shuttled about the globe every day, lending some weight to this theory. Nearly thirty years earlier, The Skin Horse made the connection between acceptable fetishes (weight lifters and surgical beauty queens) and unacceptable fetishes (in a word, freaks). Nabil: “Perfection becomes an imperfection, a curiosity, a handicap, and the handicap when taken to its physical extremes becomes an end in itself. Hence, King Size [magazine]. Jonny the Wad. Chesty Morgan. King Dong. Big Bum. And all those freaks we have learned to love and loathe. And some people lust after.” Freaks have their place, but it is a well proscribed place. Nabil: “In the world of sexuality, there are three genders: female, male and disabled. And what is more, traditionally, in the disabled group, we are categorized into monsters or children. Children, eh? So we’re either monsters or children. We’re either abused or patronized. We’re either a fetish or sexless. Never in between. [...] It seem we need freaks not only to reassure ourselves of our own normality but more importantly to help us rediscover something. Perhaps that’s why we create our own freaks in myths, legends, fairy stories, literature and films. Perhaps that’s why we impart a certain humanity in them, and allow them to love and be loved. But of course only in fiction.” Here The Skin Horse shows some of the approved and fictional couplings between able bodied persons and freaks, such as Leda and swan, a maid and a minotaur, Kala and Charleton Heston.

If the disabled are (or would like to be) similar to anyone else in their sex lives, are they similar in their loneliness? One man in The Skin Horse says so: “The problem of exploring one’s own sexuality is a problem that everyone has.”  But no matter how we sees ourselves, the challenge in starting and maintaining a relationship (or getting laid) is in how others see us.  One woman in The Skin Horse describes her everyday life at the home for incurables for the past 34 years: “Washed, dressed, put in my chair. [...] Sometimes I ache for the human contact that I’ve been denied. For a new face that isn’t a nurse or another incurable. [...] It’s this sense of waste that I resent most of all. It’s as if people like me are somehow supposed to live our lives beyond frustration. As if part of accepting our lot should include the complete denial of any emotional life at all.” Hey! you’ve got to hide your love away…

Getting off for the disabled can mean breaking laws as well as breaking taboo. One man talks about when his personal assistant brought him to a prostitute: “She was really sort of a bit freaked out by the fact that this guy carried me up the stairs and plunked me on the bed and said ‘there he is.’ I stayed there for about three or four hours. One hears so many terrible things said about prostitutes and I believe it’s still illegal and all that but in that case in point the lady who I saw fulfilled a very useful purpose and I’m eternally grateful to her. [...] The events leading on from [hiring a prostitute] did make me much more relaxed and more self confident in myself as a sexy person, to meet other people, to make relationships, and I suppose over the last few years that has been growing and it’s still growing.”

The men and women in The Skin Horse are largely still with us.  Comedian Tony Gerrard continues to perform. The Outsiders still exists, and is the only place I’ve found that has The Skin Horse in its library. The Skin Horse was where I first learned of Nabil Shaban, and I hope that this review can draw more attention to this singular work. But Shaban has done much more, prior to and since The Skin Horse. He has many stage, film and television credits to his name, some of which are listed below. He was part of the CRASS Collective and in 1980 co-founded the Graeae Theater. Shaban is an artist, an author, an animator, a director, an actor and a musician. He is a father.  How uncomfortable he must feel to know he’s been such a positive influence on my life and the lives of so many others.  Sorry, friend, you’re a hero.

Shaban offers many of his works online at YouTube and elsewhere. If I Decide to Commit Suicide, You Need Hands and The Fifth Gospel include Tina Leslie, also seen in The Skin Horse. If I Decide to Commit Suicide is a video for Shaban’s poem of the same name. It quotes from Eraserhead by David Lynch, just as The Skin Horse quotes from Lynch’s Elephant Man. You Need Hands is a dark music video. The Fifth Gospel describes Christianity as ‘body fascist’ and shows Shaban and Leslie being patronized during a trip to the non-healing fountains of Lourdes. Morticia is available as a video on demand from amazon.com. Morticia is about a girl who wants to become a vampire. A third party has posted The Strangest Viking online. This is a documentary narrated by Shaban on Ivar the Boneless, a viking who conquered much of England. An excerpt from The Alien Who Lived in the Sheds is online. In The Alien Who Lived in the Sheds, Shaban shows that for all his fire and thunder he can make fun of himself. Shaban is a believer in the paranormal, but is aware of how such beliefs can look to non-believers. Shaban is an advocate of the outsider, but it not immune from gawking when he meets a fellow outsider. Shaban is his body, but his body is also a source of pain. Alien includes a film within a film, and this film is again one of his poems set to music and video. For all his success in the theater, Shaban has experienced one significant setback. He secured money for a production of his play The First to Go when England joined the war against Iraq. The First to Go is a play about the fate of the disabled under the T4 program in wartime Germany. Shaban returned the government’s ‘blood money’ in protest and the play has yet to find another backer.

Nabil Shaban has successfully scattered the ash circle that kept able and disabled actors apart. He is a man who can be judged on his talents.  Shaban recently turned fifty and has many years of innovation and experimentation ahead of him. Thank you to Nabil Shaban for opening many doors, taking many risks and thumbing your nose at heresy.

Nabil Shaban (selected works)

Stage:

  • Godspell (1987)
  • The Emperor (1987)
  • Hamlet (1988)
  • Iranian Nights (1989)
  • Measure for Measure (1990)
  • Imagine Drowning (1991)
  • Fleshfly (1996)
  • DARE (1997) [vimeo] [youtube 1][youtube 2][youtube 3]
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1998) [wikipedia]
  • The Little Lamp (1999)
  • Portadown Blues (2000)
  • I am the Walrus (2001)
  • Knocknashee (2002)
  • Jasmine Road (2003)
  • Threepenny Opera (2005) [youtube][dailymotion]
  • One Hour Before Sunrise (2006)
  • Endgame (2007) [youtube]
  • The First to Go (2008)
  • Marat/Sade (?)

Film:

Television:

Radio

  • The Ramayana (1994)
  • Treasure Island (1995)

Books:

Internet:

Trevor Blake is a sign language interpreter who lives in Portland, Oregon USA.