In January of 2019, Malaysia Goodson struggled to carry her baby in a stroller down the steps of a subway station in Manhattan. She fell that day and she died, though she is survived by her daughter. Goodson was just 22 at the time. Victor Dias Rodrigues, a documentary filmmaker and college student at the time of her death, was deeply affected by Goodson’s story. “It was a bit of a shock. I was 21, she was my age, and she died this way,” he says. A lifelong lover and critic of the MTA system, Dias Rodrigues set out to understand the decades-long struggle to make the subway system in New York more accessible.
Before making All Riders, Dias Rodrigues spent months shadowing accessibility activists, speaking with government officials and piecing together the frustrating pattern of neglect in New York City subways. Beyond an x-minute film about the struggle for accessible subways, All Riders is also a movie about the fragility we are all vulnerable to. All Riders is a Vimeo Staff Pick and a recipient of the Carl Lerner Award for Social Significance.
Shanti Escalante-de Mattei : What was the research process like?
Victor Dias Rodrigues: I started researching heavily, reading all sorts of academic resources to get a lay of the land. I found activist groups and started to go to meetings and rallies, started meeting those people and building those relationships. The summer [after] I furthered these relationships, going to court, getting involved. By the time the next semester came in, I was in a production class for documentary and I had all this research prepared. That's when I shot the film, which was fall of 2019.
SED: How did this research process affect you?
VDR: As an able-bodied person, there was definitely a switch that I had to turn on to understand this issue that I don't personally experience. There’s one person I interviewed who said, ‘If I'm going down the street and there's like a three inch bump, that's like Mount Everest for me.’ That really blew my mind. It’s these little things: inaccessible bathrooms, if doors are too heavy, curb cuts. Simple things that make the world of difference for a person who's wheelchair bound or a person who has a disability. That really changed my whole perspective of what it means to design an accessible space.
SED: Watching you make this film over the past year also did that for me, getting on the train and realizing ‘damn, there’s like two stops that are accessible on this whole line. How did I not notice that before?’
VDR: Yeah, and fundamentally accessibility is about universality. If you make a space accessible you're not only benefiting those that need it [all the time].
SED: Something that I came across recently that really struck me was this girl saying, “I just wish everybody would understand themselves as only temporarily able-bodied”. Everyone gets old, you can have an accident and your mobility changes, maybe not forever but for sometime. This isn't a niche issue.
VDR: One of the main characters in my film, Sasha, was just walking down Central Park and a tree trunk fell on his head and now he's paralyzed from the waist down. Another guy, Robert, in his 20s learned that he had this degenerative neurological disease passed on from his father. Life is fragile. People have this preconceived idea that people with disabilities have something wrong with them and that the default is that you’re able bodied–but that’s not the case. Now we're shifting our mindset–[if you’re disabled] you're just an individual and your personhood is shaped by your ability to move within spaces that are inaccessible through no fault of your own.
This whole film started with Malaysia. She was able bodied but, you know, she had a carriage to carry. It goes beyond the body, it's just the circumstances that you're in at any given moment.
SED: What was it like hanging out with these activists?
VDR: I learned that the activist community is a tight knit group, everyone knows everyone. Even folks later down the line I would want to interview in [local] government or at the MTA, they all know each other. What really struck me was their tenacity, the unrelenting activism, rain or shine, day or night. These people have to deal with a world that is still operating with urban design trends of hundreds of years ago. Some of them are in their 80s or 70s, [and] their spark was just truly eye opening. It’s all about tenacity when dealing with the same court cases for years and years. I now see my craft as a documentary filmmaker as my own personal activism. Some people may get into writing legislation, researching at a think tank, or demonstrating. This is my way.
SED: Do you have advice for people interested in doing politically engaged documentaries?
VDR: It's a very slow business. You’ve got to be patient and build relationships. Put yourself out there and do the work. Hold yourself accountable for understanding these issues you don't quite grasp and people will see that you’re willing to learn and have a genuine interest in helping. The reason I was able to get so much access was through months and months of gaining people's trust, showing that I knew what I was talking about.
I don't want to sound like an old person, ‘People don't look up [from] their phones’ etc, but, there's a lot of things that you can glean from paying attention to “ordinary” people and their day to day lives. There's so much under the hood- it just takes a little peek.