‘12 Bends’ is astounding journey of self-discovery

Victor Pineda/Courtesy

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Grade: 5.0/5.0

A common misconception by the able-bodied population is that if people with disabilities (PWD) have their basic care met and perhaps hold down some sort of employment, that’s pretty much all there is to them and their lives. What the documentary “12 Bends,” directed by UC Berkeley adjunct professor and alumnus Victor Pineda, demonstrates is that striving to grasp the conundrums of life is a very human, and very personal, experience. The “D” in PWD does, however, entail the necessity of additional supports to get at the environmental fit needed to be successful.

Pineda, with a yet-unnamed muscular wasting disorder has 12 bends in his body, and currently functions at 10 percent lung capacity. The motivation behind Pineda’s journey of self-discovery, which is documented in the film, was a period of indecision during which he had started questioning if his life choices were really creating an optimal path for him. Pineda is quite an accomplished person in his own right, being one of the youngest drafters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and a two-time presidential appointee to the United States Access Board, among other things. However, after his longtime career mentor questioned Pineda’s focus at UC Berkeley, Pineda felt he seemed to be holding onto too many loose strings in both his career and personal life. In the film, he poses three questions to himself: What is a life worth living, how does one find a way to their higher self and how does one transform one’s strengths into weaknesses? 

The film is also about how we confront the challenges in our lives. A journey to the Burning Man gathering in Nevada makes Pineda face his fears which is reflected in his panicked voice as the smoke and sparks of the temple fire get too close for comfort. The visual of the shaking camera shows that even his able-bodied companions are shocked at the intensity of the sparks. Being vulnerable is what makes us human and Pineda is not afraid to show his vulnerabilities, even if exposing them may have left him feeling a little bruised. The documentary is also interwoven with clips from Pineda’s young life, contributing to the personal voice behind the film.

While the visit to Burning Man gives Pineda new insights, he aspires to relive the spiritual journey he had taken to India 24 years ago to the ashram of Sai Baba. It is not uncommon for families of a PWD to travel the world in search of solutions to help improve the quality of life for their loved one. The implied message is that even if such faith-based searches do not necessarily lead to “cures” they can motivate one towards a productive life and become in Pineda’s case, “a super-achiever” during his undergraduate years at UC Berkeley and beyond.

A journey to India can, however, be chaotic and exhausting — which is evident as Pineda travels to Mumbai, to the Elephanta Caves and then to the holy city of Varanasi. In the film, Pineda has to consider health issues for his traveling companions, as their health would impact his own. India also comes with the ubiquitous mosquito and the risk of malaria which Pineda acknowledges with a light-hearted, humorous pretend exchange with a mosquito, where he asks the mosquito to leave him alone as he is a “friend” — but the mosquito won’t leave him alone for that very reason. 

During his taxing journey, Pineda is at times confronted by the worldwide stereotype of PWD as having to be satisfied with their lot in life and not aspire for more. As Pineda is carried up the steps to Elephanta Caves a passerby asks why he needs to go to the top, instead of just being shown pictures. But this doesn’t impede Pineda, who makes a spiritual connection at the top when he is finally able to touch the rock carvings inside the historic site.

Throughout the film, Pineda is determined to push the limits as he wants to not just look but immerse his head in the Ganges River at Varanasi— a feat which takes some deft manipulation by his companions. By doing so, Pineda experiences his moment of utter equanimity. The emotion of this moment — of transcendence and of clarity, outwardly expressed as loud deep throaty sounds, is possibly the highlight of the documentary. The experience of visiting Varanasi enriches not just Pineda, but also his companions in a very profound and deep way. 

The point of such journeys is not necessarily a happily ever after. But it does offer Pineda peace and clarity of thought to reevaluate his life and priorities in a different light, which is the major takeaway from “12 Bends.” Far from being critical, his mentor had in fact seen Pineda’s vision and capacity impacting an audience beyond just a university classroom. Pineda comes to realize that reorganizing his life would allow him to focus on things he loved. His fear of losing friends and family was baseless as at the end of the day he was surrounded by love, and he should trust those around him to help him on his journey, even those who were not physically present. 

“12 Bends” presents a life of dignity, grit and perseverance. It demonstrates the richness and depth that is present in the mind of a PWD like Victor Pineda. “12 Bends” is ultimately an astounding journey of self-discovery.

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].