Our Together! 2016 Disability Film Festival has already been running for two days, because we always include a two-day workshop for disabled artists and filmmakers at the start. This year’s workshop, hosted by the Together! Photographers and Filmmakers Club at the Grassroots centre in Memorial Park West Ham, focussed on Poetry Film, and was co-facilitated by Julie Newman from Together! 2012 and Zata Banks from the Poetry Film organisation. While our filmmakers had requested the subject, it also made the workshop attractive to participants in our Pop-Up Poetry Club.
On Thursday, Zata Banks told us about different types of Poetry Film, and screened a number of examples. This proved very inspiring, and before lunch participants were already writing and shooting a holiday-themed film of their own. I was only able to attend yesterday, because of Festival-related preparations today, but I’m very much looking forward to seeing the final footage. A number of participants also began making plans yesterday for developing their own practice next year as a result of their learning. Another positive and unexpected outcome is the opportunity to talk to the Poetry Film organisation next year about curating and archiving the films of the late David Morris, who inspired Together! 2012, and whose approach to filmmaking and poetry has always informed our curatorial policy.
Tonight we launched a weekend of Disability Film at the Old Town Hall Stratford with the premiere of Marianela Vega Oroza’s documentary Rolling Strong, about Peru’s first quadrugby team. One of the most enjoyable parts of the Film Festival for me is learning about the lives and home communities of disabled people around the world. Rolling Strong is particularly powerful in this respect, because the filmmaker allows the players to speak for themselves, often over footage of them training and playing. As a wheelchair user myself, I could probably identify more strongly with some incidents, but the sensitivity of the storytelling enables any viewer to empathise. The fact that the players had to conform to medical classifications, and therefore had been non-disabled before sustaining life-changing injuries, I imagine makes it easier for non-disabled viewers too.
One thing that Rolling Strong makes obvious is the power of sport to assist in independent living. The quadrugby team players are already rolling strong at the start of the film, but as we get to know them better in all aspects of their lives, we find out that of course they have faced and continued to face multiple barriers. The improved self-esteem, social networks and physical fitness they have gained from sport, though, have empowered them. It makes it all the sadder to learn at the end of the film that the team was only funded for two years, and that a similar project in Mexico had proved unsustainable after the two years were up. With ParaGames coming to Peru in 2019, I for one am now supporting the Peruvian team. An added bonus of Rolling Strong was learning more about Peru, a country about which I sadly know little, through the eyes of fellow wheelchair users.
The Film Festival is the one weekend of the year when positive images of disabled people are the norm and not the exception. Artist Katherine Araniello’s short We are the Superhumans, which we screened at the start of the evening, reworked Channel 4’s ‘positive’ images of disabled people in its Yes I Can Rio 2016 Paralympics trailer. Widely praised in the non-disabled world, the original trailer was widely criticised in the disability world for its suggestion that disabled people can do anything – in fact, become superhuman – if they just try hard enough. Being ‘lazy’ is a common stereotype of disabled people, used to justify every more punishing welfare benefits and social care regimes. Katherine’s witty film rightly exposes the weaknesses in Channel 4’s approach, while Marianela Vega Oroza allowed the audience to think for themselves instead of framing her subjects through a convenient stereotype. A great start to a great weekend.
Many thanks to the Together! team especially Julie Newman, Sarah Hughes, Alison Marchant, Ninna Fray, Blake Jarrette Gibbons, Kathleen Jackson and Tony Malone; my PA Shirley Skinner; Zata Banks and the Poetry Film organisation; the Active Newham volunteers; the staff at the Old Town Hall and Grassroots; and as always Arts Council England and our supporters.