“My name is Steven. I am 48 years old and I’m a dwarf.” So begins Steven Delano’s unusual new documentary, No Bigger Than a Minute. What follows is neither an academic discourse on the life and times of America’s “little people,” nor a project in self-affirmation in the face of social discrimination — though the film includes healthy doses of both of these. No Bigger Than a Minute has tongue-in-cheek re-enactments, a music score structured after Delano’s own mutated DNA sequence, short-statured Hollywood stars such as Peter Dinklage (“The Station Agent”) and Meredith Eaton (“Family Law”) and musicians, rappers, comedians, novelists, doctors and ordinary folk. Not to mention filmmaker Werner Herzog and an uneasy, and very funny, cameo by Randy Newman, singer-songwriter of the top ten hit, “Short People.”
What really stirs this eclectic mix into potent form is Delano’s own reluctant “star turn” at the film’s center — a film he didn’t originally envision appearing in at all. Delano’s opening statement is both the culmination of one story, about what he’d learned of dwarfism after 40 years of ignoring it, and the beginning of a new story. It’s this new story that thrusts him into his own film to delve into questions of humanity’s treatment of difference, tensions between personal and group identities and the future evolution of these contradictions. It’s here that Delano faces the most untidy dilemma of all: In the brave new world of genetic engineering, when it is conceivable that dwarfism can be bred out of human populations, is this what we want?
Delano was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to an Irish-Polish Catholic family. His mother, Josephine, remembers finding out that something was wrong the night he was born. “It was upsetting, but we had to cope with it and eventually come to terms with it,” she says, recalling the initial shock and the surgeries that followed. Delano still remembers the contraption his late father, James, and friends built for him when he was in a full body cast: “It was effectively an old baby carriage with a piece of plywood on top. They’d plop me down on that and push me around the boulevard. That for me, is the best thing they ever did for me.” Josephine recalls Delano’s advice to Steven regarding a cousin’s taunts, “If [he] does anything more, just pick up the crutch and hit him,” and afterward, “That was good, because he never did it to you again.”
Delano asks us to imagine the weird muddle of sympathy and presumption in people who are moved to pick up and hug a dwarf they don’t know. With “little people,” as many but not all of them prefer to be called, the dichotomies and contradictions that arise from their obvious differences are much sharper than for average-sized people. And especially in entertainment-crazed America, little people occupy a disproportionate and fantastic place in popular culture, from the carnival sideshow to Hollywood to appearances in German director Werner Herzog’s acclaimed films. In “No Bigger Than a Minute,” Herzog declares that dwarfs have a “radical human dignity.” But dwarf rapper Bushwick Bill has his own take on it: “People tried to protect me; I didn’t give a * * * about that….I wanted to be part of the great big world we live in.”
Certainly those who must struggle for their dignity, rather than merely assume it, often have a stronger sense of it. But its symbolic power comes in good part from the very odd circumstance that has thrown Delano pell-mell into the middle of his own film — hardly anyone, even other little people, knows a dwarf. Delano himself never met another dwarf until he was 35! The randomness of the genetic mutations that cause dwarfism, and the traditional reluctance of families to share their situations (a quality that brings both self-reliance and isolation), meant that, until recently, most little people and their families didn’t know other little people. That isolation gives media images of dwarfs an exceptional power to define dwarfism, even in the minds of dwarfs themselves.
And so, Delano, after a lifetime of ignoring the question (he didn’t even know which of the estimated 200 kinds of dwarfism he had) and only five years after meeting another dwarf for the first time, finds himself wading through tides of media imagery of little people — and pursuing the behind-the-scenes realities that created the images — in his effort to understand what being a dwarf means. Then there is a modern dilemma: When is one being exploited and when is one exploiting oneself? Preconceptions about dwarfs in popular culture and as a minority culture are very much a part of the national psyche, but Delano is the first dwarf to make a film about it from a dwarf’s perspective.
No Bigger Than a Minute follows the twists in the story of dwarfism today. Scientists have isolated the genetic mutations for the majority of dwarf cases, and, most astoundingly, have developed tests that detect these mutations in the earliest stages of a fetus’s development. The question is inescapable: Is dwarfism a chronic handicap to be eliminated? Or is it valuable human diversity?
Much has changed in recent years for little people. The founding of Little People of America, and their annual conventions, which promote social, professional and political relations among dwarfs, have broken down their traditional isolation and heralded the public emergence of this minorit y group. For all the wonderful support he found in his childhood, Delano can’t help but wonder how different his life would have been if he had met other dwarfs earlier — if he had been a little less determined to live as if his four-foot stature didn’t matter.
“The viewer goes on a trip with me as I learn and try to explain what it feels like to be a person with dwarfism,” says Delano. “Along the way there’s been this bit of self-discovery and acceptance. But it necessarily meant that I needed to meet other people who had already achieved this self-acceptance. So we meet a lot of great and interesting people from all walks of life — from dwarfs from middle-class upbringings to movie stars. And they help me explain what it feels like to be a person who gets a lot of attention, even just walking down the street, but also what it feels like to take control of that attention.
“It was important to me that No Bigger Than a Minute be different from other films about dwarfism,” Delano continues. “I was determined to avoid sentimentality and adjectives like ‘inspirational.’ Because of my interests in pop culture, I wanted to make something more on the stylistic side. And something with some attitude.”