The Punk Syndrome - Feature

Gritty documentaries, punk bands, and club nights are fighting for disabled people’s right to a rock n’ roll lifestyle if they so chose, writes Maria Evrenos.

Punk may have been born in London but the heroes of stage rage and leather jackets for the past year have been the Finnish band Pertti Kurikan’s Name Day (PKND). The band members, like most original punks in the likes of Sex Pistols, Clash and Ramones, throw tantrums, express vigorous sexual appetite, have a scornful outlook on society and are always sticking two fingers up to authority. The difference is that PKND’s members do not only suffer from the punk syndrome; they have an array of less glorified mental diagnoses.

Pertti Kurikka, the singer, songwriter and guitarist in the band has cerebral palsy and autism. It sometimes causes him to become anxious or angry. He likes to play with the seams on jackets while making intriguing noises. And he has a speech impediment which one of their songs is about: “Pertti is mentally disabled. Pertti gets no coffee. Pertti has a speech defect and can’t throw a disco party.”

The band has been playing together since 2009 through a music project at a day centre in Helsinki where they received care. But their lives have changed a lot the past year. They released their first album and Jukka Kärkkäinen and J-P Passi released a documentary about them called The Punk Syndrome. It was a huge international success and has won many awards.  

What makes the film so riveting is its unapologetic approach to the life of mentally disabled people. Only a few seconds into the film and we’re exposed to Toni Välitalo’s peeing penis.  Smiling at the camera, PKND’s drummer who has Down’s syndrome, is at ease with the situation. It makes you drop both jaw and prejudice right from the start.

In another scene Pertti Kurikka is in the shower washing himself defiantly after he is ordered to shower before their concert. The nudity has causes some eyebrows to rise, but directors JP PAssi and Jukka Kärkkäinen stand by the scenes. “If we would have been filming not-disabled punk-rockers urinating and having a shower, we would have shown the situations in the way we did. By showing them as we would have shown anybody else we wanted to treat them equally and respect them - and of course to raise some questions.”

This idea follows throughout the documentary. It’s unflinching. We see the band members laugh, cry, fall over, drink alcohol, make jokes and talk about sex. It lets you follow their frustrations, deep moments of sorrow as well as joy as they fight for their right - sometimes in internal battles and sometimes against authority at the disability institutions- to decide over their own lives. But we also see a great band in the making; writing songs, having band practice, typing lyrics, performing and eventually going on tour.

“It is a different film about a similar subject,” says Paul Richards, who is a member of the UK punk band Heavy Load. They also have members with mental handicaps. “We were fortunate too in having a documentary as a way of getting our message out and the result has been that we've managed to reach a really large audience, and when the movie was screened we had loads of people expressing their support and frustrations.” He is the director of Stay Up Late which works for learning disabled people's rights to lead the lifestyle they want, to have social lives and go to concerts etc.

Because the fact that bands like PKND and Heavy Load can live the rock n’ roll dream is great, but far from the reality of what most severely mentally impaired people expect from their lives. Paul Richards says: “Sadly we're hearing that the pressures of funding cuts are even making the situation worse for people."

Tina Poyzer has been working to improve the quality of life for mentally disabled people for over 20 years. She has seen The Punk Syndrome about the Finnish rockers and thought it was very inspirational. “Back in 2001 a lot of people with learning disabilities didn’t have much of a social life and going out in the evening was more seen like something put in place to relieve their family. So an ‘excursion’ could simply be going out and watching your caretaker do their grocery shopping.”

By running a club night in London that is learning-disability-friendly, Tina Poyzer does her bit to facilitate a social life for mentally handicapped. That means physical considerations such as providing ramps and disabled toilets and not using flashing lights etc. But she says the attitude of staff at the club can be just as challenging when looking for a suitable venue. “The staff need to be able to deal with the fact that some people can get nervous or have a speech impediment.”

The Bubble club has been running since 2005 and Tina Poyzer is over the moon over its achievements. “We are usually about 200 people on the night. We’ve had five marriage proposals at the club, so far.”

But there are still many mentally disabled who don’t ever get out. Sometimes because they can’t afford it, don’t have anyone to help them go, or they are afraid to be exploited or harmed, or ridiculed. Tina Poyzer regretfully explains how she still sees appalling encounters in her line of work. “People still call them a spasm, laugh at them and even spit on them. It still happens.”

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