“Despite the Loss” peels back the layers of life as a racer, wrencher, and amputee
Jason Schneider never thought of himself as an amputee. Certainly not as disabled, either. But when the professional video editor and certified car nut started making a film of his own about amputees doing things most people wouldn’t expect them to, the process forced him to delve into the depths of his own self-identity. Schneider’s film, Despite the Loss, highlights the compelling stories of several amputees leading productive and fulfilling lives. It also charts his own personal journey through understanding what it means to be a wrencher, racer, car builder, and filmmaker—who happens to have one only hand.
Schneider grew up in Queens, New York, where his father opened an auto garage specializing in transmissions. Like many sons, he idolized his dad and took a keen interest in everything mechanical and car-related. Scheider’s father showed him the ropes a bit, helping him change the plugs on his Mustang in high school and lending his expertise for a manual gearbox swap, but he ultimately wanted a different life for his son. “Do it as a hobby, not as a career,” was his fatherly advice.
The loss of his hand in a childhood fireworks accident did nothing to derail his passion—young Schneider went head-first into cars, and Nissan Z cars and Mustangs became a big part of his life. He started off street racing in Queens and Long Island, eventually moving on to test-and-tunes with quarter-mile drag racing. He got into Nissans with a 1993 300ZX twin-turbo, which he eventually parted out to buy a non-turbo 2+2 Z32. For that project he performed a five-speed swap and rebuilt the engine.
Through the car community he met several amputees, and a major dimension of the film’s original mission was to take a much different approach than people were used to seeing on screen. “I didn’t like how disability was portrayed. It was inspiration porn,” Schneider says. “They tie their shoes at the end and it’s a miracle. These films are usually made by able-bodied people, and I wanted to tell my own perspective that wasn’t exploitative and showed people’s real, full lives.”
When the film project began to stall out, Schneider wracked his brain for ways to look at it from a different angle. He eventually stepped in front of the camera himself—something he hadn’t planned on doing. As he talked things out, things really started unraveling. “Out came these deep, entrenched thoughts I didn’t even know I carried. It took me a year to really process it,” he says.
“For so long, I didn’t think about disability because I didn’t want to. I never felt like someone from a place of disadvantage. It was a problem like any other kind.”
Once Schneider realized that he was going to be a bigger piece of the story, as would his constant battle with building a race car in his garage, the responsibility to really get the feel of the film right became even greater. In addition to his Z car racing and wrenching, Schneider restored a 1969 Ford Mustang—he is deeply embedded in the culture of car enthusiasm. He wanted to make sure the film would be relatable for those people, in particular, who know what it’s like to drive or work on their car as a means of escape from heavier problems.
“I spent my whole life trying not to be seen as the guy with one hand,” he says. “What I found is that there is a lot of internal pressure. If I had a lousy session on the race track, I was worried people would attribute it to me not having a hand—I didn’t want to misrepresent the community in any way.”
Having seen it myself, I can tell you that Despite the Loss is a thoughtful, compassionate, and soul-baring film. The tone is mostly serious, but there’s plenty of humor peppered throughout, including a great bit where Schneider is relieved to be able to squeeze his shorter arm into the tight engine compartment of his Z32. Schneider’s honesty is refreshing and at times powerfully raw. The film is wholehearted tribute to the challenges of working on a project that goes in a direction you can’t predict, and that’s something anyone who’s ever stared at a broken car, wondering how they’re ever going to fix it, can appreciate.
The process of directing, producing, and editing his own full-length film (not to mention submitting it to festivals) was physically and financially draining, but in the end, Schneider is thrilled his big introspective bet paid off. “You have to go on the journey.”
Watch Despite the Loss streaming on Amazon Prime as well as Vimeo on Demand.