People With Disabilities, On Screen And Sans Clichés
Isaac Zablocki sees a lot of movies. As director of film programs at the JCC Manhattan, Zablocki is sent film after film for screening consideration. Eight years ago, he started noticing something:
"I was receiving a lot of films on the topic of disabilities," he tells NPR's Arun Rath, "and no one was showing these films. It was always these amazing movies that were just not getting picked up anywhere."
So Zablocki co-founded a film festival to showcase films made by and about people with disabilities. The festival, called ReelAbilities, is now in its seventh year and takes place in 15 U.S. cities. It opened in New York this week.
From about 300 submissions, Reelabilities selected 25 for screening this year. They include No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie, made mostly by deaf filmmakers and actors; Rolling Romance, a short film about a man with muscular dystrophy navigating the world of online dating; and The Case of the Three-Sided Dreams, a documentary about Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the blind jazz musician who played several horns simultaneously.
Zablocki emphasizes that the festival looks for high-quality films with universal appeal. They also consider the way in which disability is presented in the movies.
"We tend not to like the films that show disability in a more clichéd sense," he says. "We like a more nuanced sense — or possibly even films that are not about the disability, but rather just happen to have disability in them."
Boosting the visibility of disabled people in cinema can have a real-world impact, Zablocki believes.
"In the mainstream media, they're hardly shown," he says. "This is the largest minority in America. They make up well over 10 percent of American society, but they definitely are not represented on that level. And I often feel that life mimics art, and because we don't see people with disabilities on TV or in films as part of the normal world, then often they're further excluded within the real world."
People with disabilities aren't simply present on screen at the festival. Many of the films, like No Ordinary Hero, are also made by people with disabilities. As for the audience, Zablocki says, about half are connected in some way with the disability community.
Accessibility, of course, is a priority: All venues are wheelchair-accessible. All films are captioned. And for the visually impaired, Reelabilities does audio description, which Zabloski says is extremely rare. "We actually trained audio describers and we've been using them every year to create descriptions of all the films," he says.
But the other half of the audience, he notes, consists of people without disabilities who aren't tied to the community. They're simply there for the films.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's a comedy cliche that the easiest path for an actor to win an Oscar is to play a character with a disability. In reality, movies that focus on disability or disabled characters tend to get overlooked, according to Isaac Zablocki. That's why he started the ReelAbilities Film Festival, which opened this week in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "AUTISTIC LIKE ME")
CHARLES JONES: How do you get rid of that guilt? How do you get rid of shame? How do you get rid of why me?
RATH: That's from "Autistic Like Me," one of 25 films that touch on various aspects of life with disabilities. There's also a short film about a man with muscular dystrophy navigating the world of online dating, "Rolling Romance."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROLLING ROMANCE")
DAVID HOLT: (As Orson) I've tried dating sites for normal people - no responses.
RATH: And one in particular I can't wait to see, a documentary about Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the blind jazz musician who could play several horns simultaneously. It's called "The Case Of The Three Sided Dream."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY FILM, "THE CASE OF THE THREE SIDED DREAM")
RAHSAAN ROLAND KIRK: One of the dreams is quite clear because it showed me playing the instruments simultaneously. So after that, I set out to find the instruments that I heard in my dreams.
RATH: The ReelAbilities Film Festival is now in its seventh year. Isaac Zablocki says they got about 300 submissions and cut that list down to just 25.
ISAAC ZABLOCKI: First of all, we look for quality of film - good films that can relate not just to the disability community, but pretty much universally. Second, of course, is how disability is presented in the film. And we tend to not like the films that show disability in a more cliched sense. We like a more nuanced sense, or possibly even films that just are not about the disability, but rather just happen to have disability in them.
RATH: You also have films from filmmakers who have disabilities. Let's talk about this film "No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NO ORDINARY HERO: THE SUPERDEAFY MOVIE")
JAMES LEO RYAN: (As Patrick) Jacob, stop. Where's your hearing aid? Why aren't you wearing it?
COLLEEN FOY: (As Emily) He doesn't like it. And it doesn't do any good because he can't hear.
RYAN: (As Patrick) Jacob, do you want to be different your whole life?
ZABLOCKI: Most of the actors and the filmmakers, the star come from the deaf community. And it's great to see that there's - and this didn't always exist - but an internal community from the disability world that are making their own films.
RATH: So what is the audience like? Who is coming to the festival?
ZABLOCKI: The audience is mixed. We survey our audience and we find that 50 percent come that are connected to the disability community in some way and 50 percent of the audience comes for the films. The accessibility for the festivals is an interesting side of the festival. We caption all of our films, which means even foreign films that have subtitles, we still add captions so the hearing impaired can really access these films. But we also do audio description, which is extremely rare for films. This we learned after the first years that the blind community and the visually impaired community want to enjoy films as well. And we actually trained audio describers, and we've been using them every year to create descriptions of all the films.
RATH: You know, we had a report on this program just last week that indicated how even 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, job discrimination persists with Americans with disabilities. Is it worse or better in the film community?
ZABLOCKI: Oh, I think much worse within the film community. I mean, when you think about it the representation of people with disabilities in mainstream media - film, television - is - I mean, they're hardly shown. This is the largest minority in America. They make up way over 10 percent of American society, but they definitely are not represented on that level. And I often feel that life mimics art. And that because we don't see people with disabilities on TV or in films as part of the normal world, then often they're further excluded within the real world.
RATH: So after this festival in New York, what happens with the films from here? What do you do to try to get them in wider distribution?
ZABLOCKI: So this is one of the wonderful things about the festival is that it's now in a total of 15 cities across the country - major cities. I will note that LA is, I think, the one major American city on the top 10 list that is not included.
RATH: Why on Earth is that?
ZABLOCKI: It's about having a partner organization that could really take the lead on it. And I can tell you, it's not an easy project to put together. Putting together a disability film festival is much harder than any other film festival just based on the kind of guests that you're going to have and the kind of accessibility you need to create. And it's not always easy, but the films themselves have gotten out to now 15 cities. And in each city, they play in multiple locations. That's part of our accessibility pattern that we've created is to not just screen in one location, but to really take it to the community. And there's actually now a community that's formed out of the festival.
RATH: Isaac Zablocki is the artistic director of the ReelAbilities Film Festival. Isaac, thank you.
ZABLOCKI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.