Disability is now a (film festival) winner

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Image: Scene from Sydney Film Festival winning entry On Body and Soul showing a group of factory workers staring through an open door

Film festivals are starting to feature disability streams and sessions, including this year’s Sydney Film Festival. Attitude Foundation director, and film buff, Dominique Antarakis, checked out the disability offerings, including a welcome mainstream program winner. 

 

That winner of this year’s Sydney Film Festival Official Competition (worth a cool $40,000 to the director) was Hungarian film On Body and Soul, a sometimes brutal but ultimately beautiful portrayal of two people finding love.

Both main characters have a disability – one visible, one not. The director, Ildikó Enyedi, spoke about the reaction to the lead female character who has Asperger’s. Parents had come up to her after screenings to commend her on the portrayal of a character whose experience mirrored theirs. That is that their son/daughter is “a wonderful person who just happens to have Asperger’s.” She also said that at least one woman with Asperger’s had come up and given her a hug.

The male character couldn’t move one of his arms – possibly as a result of an industrial accident (he worked in an abattoir) although this was not discussed or explained at all in the film. It was just a minor detail along with the fact that he was quite tall, soft-spoken and had a goatee.

It was good to hear that the movie had been positively received by people with lived experience of disability – and in fact it wasn’t the only film in the festival to portray a character with a disability in a relatively positive way.

But the fact remains that neither of the actors have a disability themselves (at least not the ones they portrayed in the film). In fact, the male lead had to be coached to look ‘authentic’.

How refreshing, then, to attend the Screenability panel discussion which covered this issue, and others, the portrayal of characters with a disability on screen, and the perception of filmmakers with disability.

According to the official blurb, Sydney Film Festival’s Screenability, a partnership with Screen NSW and the NSW Department of Family and Community Services, is a new platform for filmmakers with disability to tell their own stories.

Ironically, one of the short films screening as part of the program, The Milky Pop Kid, is about actor and disability consultant Jules and her attempts to share with actor Craig what life is like living with a disability so he can prepare for a role. Art imitating life, indeed!

Screenability programmer Sofya Gollan introduced the program and posed the question, “I have a theory that disability is big business in cinema. Because it is about vulnerability, it is about extremes of the human condition. Actors are always winning awards for playing disabled characters – but I wonder if the disability story were more authentic, if it were people with disability telling their own story, would the business be as big?”

Johanna Garvin, director of The Milky Pop Kid, responded by saying that “If you look at the Paralympics, and how popular that was, how athletes with disabilities were seen more on a level playing field, I see no reason why it can’t apply to disability cinema.”

“I think about the experience I had making The Milky Pop Kid. If people with disability had more say [in what was happening on-screen], it wouldn’t only be an opportunity for an actor with a disability to play a role, bit would also have a flow-on effect with cast and crew and writers.”

According to Aurora Fearnley, director of the short film Struck, which also screened as part of the festival, “A lot of the portrayal in cinema is about overcoming disability, rather than someone with a disability going on a journey that has nothing to do with their disability, it’s just a part of who they are.”

She believes this is partly caused by a lack of representation at the top levels of the industry.

“Because there aren’t any creatives with disability at the top of the chain making decisions, they aren’t able to understand that … this is not something to be afraid of, this is something to be embraced. It’s something that’s part of the world, and that we can have these narratives and they are going to be more effective, more emotional and more enriching when they’re told authentically.”

Screenability seems like a step in the right direction – but I guess the proof will be when films like these are screened as part of the main program.

As Daniel Monks, who wrote and starred in his debut feature film, Pulse, a body-swap drama blending sci-fi with sexual teen angst and identity crisis, said, “Growing up and being gay and disabled, I would go to Queer cinema to feel less alone, but I never saw depictions of disability that I could identify with, especially young disabled people.”

“I think that’s why it’s so important for us as disabled filmmakers to tell our stories because they’re not being told and we’re so awfully underrepresented. Hopefully that will change.”

The 2017 Screenability selection included the following feature films, shorts and documentaries:

Lust For Sight

When a filmmaker is told by his doctor that he can't see colours, he sets out to define what it means to see. The knowledge that he may lose it all fuels his lust for sight.

My Name Is Emily

On Ireland's misty coast, Emily is flung into foster care after her father is institutionalised. She prepares a daring escape.

Drumming is Like Thunder

You can take away Duncan Armstrong’s drum kit, but you can’t take away his desire to make music and perform.

The Milky Pop Kid

With a twinkle in her eye, actor and disability consultant Jules attempts to share with actor Craig what life is like living with a disability.

Struck

On the sand dunes of her local beach a female jogger returns to a traumatic place looking for closure.


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