Last weekend saw our fourth annual Together! Disability Film Festival, bringing together films from across the world of all lengths, genres and budgets which feature a strong disabled character and/or are made by a disabled filmmaker. Last year I wrote that ‘Disability Film has come of age’, and this was underlined in 2015 with the strongest selection of films yet. We were also delighted to have so many filmmakers present, including Peter Wareing (Not Everybody can do Everything); Donna Lipowitz (Cat Show); Simon Startin (Cripplebox); Michael Achtman and Caglar Kimyoncu (Awake); Antonia Attwood (My Mother Tongue); Maria Oshodi (Z-Eye-Z); and all the way from Italy, Cesare Cicardini (Elsewhere), together with leading actors and other stars. We were also pleased to welcome Michelle Baharier and Kath Lovell to lead our Saturday lunchtime discussion on mental health and film; and Eleanor Lisney from Sisters of Frida, and Richard Rieser, national Disability History Month director, to lead our Let’s Talk Disability Film discussions at Gerry’s Kitchen after each day’s screenings, along with Michael Achtman and Caglar Kimyoncu.
Our festival always focusses on work made in the last 18 months, with many films being newly released, and this enables us to examine trends in Disability Film. It was encouraging to see more films being made by women directors, and strong women characters featured in a significant number of both fictional films and documentaries, including Awake, Cat Show, Z-Eye-Z – and, of course, our Saturday and Sunday night feature films, Margarita with a Straw and Chocolate. However, neither feature film starred a disabled actor, although Margarita with a Straw Director Shonali Bose had tried to cast in both leading and supporting roles. It is telling that last year’s Saturday and Sunday night feature films, Max Barber’s Little Devil and Justin Edgar’s itWitness, both UK-made and starring disabled actors, have yet to find distribution a year on despite having high production values and gripping stories. Unfortunately it is still the case that, in order to make a successful film, an already well-known actor has to play the leading role.
The theme of this year’s Disability History Month is the portrayal of disabled people, and the films we screened demonstrate that within independent filmmaking at least, the portrayal of disabled people is widening all the time. Unfortunately, though, the failure to achieve distribution when using disabled actors continues to limit opportunities for all concerned, including filmmakers themselves. Casting was the theme of our Saturday lunchtime discussion last year, and the subject of an Actors’ Panel at the Disability History Month 2015 launch conference at the BFI last month (you can see the video here). I was also fortunate enough to be invited to talk about the Together! 2015 Disability History Month Festival as a whole on BBC London Radio on Sunday afternoon, where the subject came up in discussion with presenter and arts critic Nikki Bedi (Click here to listen to the interview). As the actors in the independent films we screened showed, there is no shortage of disabled actors just waiting for the opportunity to appear in mainstream television and feature films.
The film festival is perhaps the closest to my heart of all our Together! Disability History Month Festival events. I studied film at UEA for my first degree, and film has always been a part of my practice as an artist. Curating the film festival, and then presiding over most of the screenings from my laptop, meeting filmmakers in person, and discussing film with them and audience members, is always a great pleasure. I am particularly pleased to be able to ensure that there is a continuing platform for Disability Film in London (and online via our website), and that this encompasses films which represent all impairment groups including Deaf people, people with learning difficulties, people who are blind or visually impaired, people with mental health difficulties and people with long-term health conditions. I am also pleased – though this is an ongoing process – to work towards making Disability Film as widely available as possible to disabled audience members, with step-free access, removable seats, relaxed screenings, the provision of audio-description and induction loop, and BSL interpretation for discussions, as well as screening captioned and audio-described films where these are available and extending and continuing access via our website links to online versions. I am already looking forward to next year!