John Banovich finds a silver lining in every dark moment.
The Cloverdale filmmaker literally came back from the dead after being hit by a drunk driver several years ago. Now he sees every day he lives as a bonus.
And with the film industry basically shut down along with everything else because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Banovich, again, has found a silver lining.
Banovich says he wants to use his downtime during the crisis to highlight the fact that people with disabilities are invisible in the film industry.
But understanding why he wants to be an advocate for change, means understanding Banovich.
Twenty-three years ago a drunk driver changed Banovich’s life forever.
The impaired driver crossed into Banovich’s lane on the King George Highway and collided into him head on at 160 km’s an hour, propelling Banovich’s vehicle backwards. A man in a minivan then slammed into the back of Banovich’s Jeep. Banovich was crushed in the middle of two cars as his Jeep folded together. The impact from the minivan then propelled Banovich forward and his Jeep slammed into the Cavalier again.
The violent collision forced Banovich’s head into his steering wheel and his face was basically split in two.
“My vehicle didn’t have airbags,” recalls Banovich. “When the steering column impacted my face, it split from my chin down my throat, across the left side of my nose, and up my forehead.”
The first police officer on the scene, told Banovich years later that he couldn’t tell where his face was, he could only see little air bubbles from Banovich’s sparse breaths popping through a cascade of blood. As the policeman called out, Banovich briefly attained consciousness and screamed what the police officer thought was “help me” before he passed out again.
His body lay lifeless as the ambulance arrived. Brain fluid was leaking out from his skull. His right eye was driven back through the socket and into his head. His right wrist was snapped back 180 degrees. His hips were shattered from the seat belt by the force of the impact. His elbow was crushed into fragments.
The drunk driver died at the scene. The motorist behind Banovich suffered a broken spine and was paralyzed from the waist down.
As paramedics rolled Banovich’s lifeless body into the ambulance, they frantically tried to revive him.
“I died by the time they got me into the ambulance,” he says.
The policeman told Banovich years later he heard the paramedics call out a code blue. He recalled to Banovich, “there was a little voice inside my head that said, ‘you have to help this guy.’”
He and his partner then took turns, ping-ponging ahead of each other down King George and blocking off intersections to help the ambulance get to Royal Columbian faster.
It was then, Banovich says, something supernatural occurred.
“I miraculously came back to life.”
When they arrived at Royal Columbian, a frantic effort by doctors to sustain that “miracle” began. Banovich survived and spent the next three months in the ICU.
“I underwent 43 surgeries in that time. I left the hospital in a wheelchair weighing only 91 pounds, a far cry from a fit 168 before,” he says. “I was covered in scars and was told I would never walk again. This was extremely difficult as I had been a competitive cross country and marathon runner.”
Banovich was unable to work after he left the hospital and had “almost no support” from anywhere.
“I never heard from him again,” he says. “It’s like I wasn’t even a human being anymore. I was persona non grata to anyone and everyone in the film and television industry. I lost everything. I had a really hard time looking in the mirror. I had no idea why this had happened to me.”
At home, he was in pain so severe, he couldn’t sleep at night.
He soon became heavily involved with MADD, speaking to more than 100,000 high school students about the dangers of impaired driving and directing commercials for the organization.
Banovich created the now famous commercial called Glasses where a driver’s view is impaired by successive beer glasses “stacked” in front of his eyes.
To this day he’s had 148 surgeries and counting. His body’s chock-a-block with titanium, plastic, and stainless steel. He says he lives with a debilitating pain that comes and goes. Sometimes it gets so bad, he can’t work, even worse, it can get so bad he can’t get out of bed.
And this has been problematic for a director in the film industry.
“The industry doesn’t want people with disabilities because we are perceived as a liability,” he explains, adding that he wants to highlight the fact that people with disabilities are often overlooked in all aspects of society, but especially in the film industry.
“No one wants to hire you when you have a disability,” says Banovich. “It’s the dirty little secret of the industry. They are so progressive on so many fronts, but when it comes to people with disabilities, it’s a — ‘don’t want to see you, or hear you’ — problem.”
Banovich sees his disability as a silver lining in his violent crash. He says everyone with a disability brings a unique perspective to whatever work they do, and that perspective can’t be duplicated.
“How many producers can say they hired a deadman to work for them?” he asks. “I have an insight into death that few others have – all people with disabilities have unique perspectives.”
He tried to keep his disability secret in the beginning, but doesn’t hide it now.
He says because of his accident, others with disabilities in the industry now look to him for leadership and have offered quiet “thank yous” on the side.
“Many in the industry that have a disability will hide it if they can,” he says. “They know they will be seen as a liability, instead of someone with a capability.”
Now Banovich is trying to be a force for change in Hollywood North. He says – just as he felt moved to work with MADD – he must act to advocate for change.
“I’m trying to bring hope to people. I’m trying to change the landscape for the next generation of talented filmmakers that need to be treated equally,” he explains. “I’m trying to bring a voice to the industry — and some faces.”
Banovich thinks Hollywood is starting to respond to non-traditional actors and directors, but that Canada is way behind the U.S. and even further behind Europe.
“We don’t have one film festival for actors or directors with disabilities,” he says. “I’m not shocked or surprised, just disappointed.”
Banovich says many filmmakers with disabilities do not want to be identified because they don’t want to lose work. He thinks it’s shameful that people have to hide.
But, he says, a solution to the problem is simple.
“We need to fund film festivals for filmmakers with disabilities.”
And while he thinks a festival would be the ultimate goal – one he admits is probably a long way off – an easier and more realistic starting point could be just adding categories for filmmakers with disabilities to existing festivals, such as VIFF or TIFF.
“The Vancouver International Film Festival won’t return our calls,” he says, “and TIFF wants nothing to do with us. They think they won’t get any more money, or gain a bigger profile. So they feel, ‘what’s the point?’ They won’t get more exposure.”
He says the government could help by adding filmmakers with disabilities as a group that should be eligible for funding applications. So that is his next focus, contacting politicians and trying to advance the cause of filmmakers with disabilities in terms funding eligibility.
“We should be perceived as assets because of our lived experiences,” Banovich adds. “A broad diversity of experience? We have that.”