ReelAbilities: The Force Awakens

By Isaac Zablocki, ReelAbilities Film Festival

ReelAbilities: NY Film Festival is the largest festival of its kind in the country. The festival reaches a broad audience and has a mission to bridge gaps and share the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different abilities across all spectrums. But over the past eight years of this festival, it has turned into so much more. The festival marks a week-long celebration of arts and different abilities, as well as conversations about topics that go beyond the films. But it is also a gathering place for one of the most crucial civil rights movements of our time. 

Disability Inclusion without Authenticity Does Not Cut It

Disability Entrepreneurs

One of the unintended outcomes of the ReelAbilities Film Festival is that it has become a platform for filmmakers with disabilities to network and connect, as well as an opportunity to raise important issues as they pertain to the disability community. Beyond the panels and the films, there are informal meetings and connections that members of the audience, filmmakers and guests make before, after, and in between events. 

The disability film community's biggest concerns revolve around inclusion and authentic portrayal. Somehow, amidst all the noise about making Hollywood more diverse, the largest minority in America got left out. In addition, when people with disabilities are included in film, they are often left with either patronizing "pity roles," or with overly heroic representations. What's even harder is the fact that people with disabilities often do not even get to play the roles written for them. 

I understand that Hollywood is a business and movies need to make money. Producers often select the most marketable actor for a role, even if they're not the "best" or most authentic. However inauthentic the portrayal might be, the hope is for more people to be exposed to disability in film. Still, if the exposure is faulty, it might do more damage than help. But the general lack of inclusion of people with disabilities for any roles is a troubling phenomenon across the board and on top of that, Hollywood's depiction of people with disabilities is often unrelated to the realities. 

The oversight of people with disabilities with regards to casting is an issue that needs attention. We were happy to host a panel at ReelAbilities this year of actors and organizations working to create change in Hollywood. Our audience included a mix of people, both from within the disability world and those with no prior connection to it. For all, it was an impactful session. The diverse panel brought to light the struggles of actors with disabilities and took a strong stand against inauthentic portrayals. 

ReelAbilities Urges Real Portrayals of Disability

Even some of the films we screen at ReelAbilities will include actors without disabilities playing characters with disabilities. We select our films based on both artistic quality and on their portrayal of disability. We try to avoid the cliché presentations. This does not mean that we require films to include only actors with disabilities (though we want to include them as much as possible) but rather, we seek films that portray people with disabilities in a realistic, respectful, or in a surprising way. 

Disability Entrepreneurs

Often, our selection committee debates the portrayals we see and, in honesty, it is not always easy to tell if a person has a disability or is an actor playing the part. What is easy to see is if a filmmaker cares about appropriate portrayal. Regardless of who they end up casting, it is quite obvious when a filmmaker does not have an understanding of the realities of a person with a disability or is using a disability for cheap gain, versus when a filmmaker is taking the time to research, present, and cast in an inclusive way, ultimately making a forward thinking statement for the disability community. These are the films we applaud.  

It does not always mean that a person with a disability needs to get the role, but it is important that actors with disabilities were considered and that the filmmaker brings a thoughtful approach to disability and a hope to portray humanity beyond the clichés and even challenge the classic portrayals. Ultimately, we hope that the film will create change. Sometimes, it is necessary for a person without a disability to play a role, and sometimes, as in our favorite films, it is a role that is not about the disability at all and therefore, someone without a disability might play the part better. Though, as actor and disability advocate Danny Woodburn noted on our opening night, "as long as it works both ways." It is okay for someone without a disability to play a person with a disability if they are better fit for it, as long as people with disabilities can equally play roles written for able-bodied people if they can fit.

Disability Entrepreneurs

For me, it is important that thoughtful depictions of people with disabilities get out to the public. Without any representation, there cannot be authenticity. The industry needs to change and we need to make noise to create this change. The community that came to ReelAbilities and the networks that were formed at ReelAbilities have the tools to make the necessary change. As this festival spreads across the country, we hope that many other communities will join this revolution. 

About the Author:

Isaac Zablocki is the Founder and Co-Director of ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival which will take place March 2-8, 2017. He is also the director of film programs at JCC Manhattan. He attended film school at Columbia University and went on to work at Miramax Films. Previously, he produced and directed feature films and developed film educational programs for the Board of Education. Since 2004, Isaac has been developing film programs at the JCC including the Israel Film Center. Beyond ReelAbilities, he programs multiple film festivals annually, including the acclaimed Other Israel Film Festival, which focuses on Arab and minority populations in Israel.


Pre-Register for Abilities Expo Today...It's Free!

Sign up for the Abilities Buzz

Stay in the know on disability news and info.