The first full day of our Disability Film Festival was also international Human Rights Day. Together! 2012 CIC is a Disability Arts, Culture and Human Rights organisation, and Human Rights values are embedded throughout our work. Within our Film Festival, we consider Human Rights when curating our programme, in addition to trying to make it as accessible and inclusive as we can. So for example we prioritise content over production values, and assign value to the representation of the lives of people who are more usually invisible. We particularly value work by filmmakers who have faced multiple barriers in accessing their filmmaking, such as people with learning difficulties, and all disabled people who have been denied access to education and training. The bulk of our films have still been professionally made, but we include films of all budgets throughout the Festival when we believe that they merit it.
As with the rest of our artistic programme, we enjoy introducing exciting new talent, as well as showcasing the talents of mid-career artists making new work. We also have a Films from the East programme on a Saturday afternoon, for locally based filmmakers. At the start of 2012, Newham residents had the lowest level of cultural engagement in the UK, as well as the most diverse population in the UK, so we are always excited to see disabled residents creating new work. Today this included three short workshop films from our Poetry Film workshop, as well as three films by Living Films. Based at Richard House children’s hospice, Living Films enables teenagers who are living with life-limiting conditions and their siblings to access filmmaking. Our first film of the programme celebrated Living Films’ 10th birthday. We always enjoy their films, and look forward to their next ten years! I also very much liked Powerhouse Women’s film Natural, where the women filmed themselves discovering the natural life that still flourishes within the inner city.
New technologies have transformed access to filmmaking in the last 25 years, and particularly in the last decade. The late David Morris was able to create a body of unique ‘filmed poems’ in the last two years of his life because videocameras had become affordable for the first time. They had also become simple enough for David to instruct his PAs to use on his behalf, while David was able to edit his films with Windows built-in software using voice-activated software. I think that some disabled people find it very hard to accept that films made with these simple techniques have merit, because of the echoes of special schools and occupational therapy projects. Yet in the mainstream world, similar techniques are used by artists in films shown in galleries and arthouse cinemas around the world. The value of low-budget and self-made work in documenting and revealing previously hidden cultures is also widely recognised; Deaf and Disability cultures are unique and need to be preserved as part of any human rights agenda. And of course, it provides filmmakers with a place to start – had David Morris lived, there is no doubt he would have been working with much larger budgets by now, but as it is, he has been able to leave a significant cultural heritage.
Now, smartphones and tablets have become affordable and good enough to bring filmmaking within reach of many more people. That is not, though, to pretend it is still as easy for disabled people (and their families), on the lowest incomes of any group in the UK, and potentially incurring higher costs for support, transport and adaptations, as it is for non-disabled filmmakers. We are a free Festival because we know that many disabled people and local residents simply cannot afford to pay. Economic access is as important as physical and attitudinal access in engaging more disabled and local people with the arts.
Human Rights and new technologies are also reflected in the ‘virtual’ side of our Film Festival. So far as possible, we extend the reach of the Together! Disability Film Festival beyond the day itself and the geographic location, by leaving our programmes online and embedding links to online versions or sales sites. This also means that each year’s Festival website acts as a portal to Disability Film for future scholars and film buffs. We were proud that in 2015, Birbeck Institute of the Moving Image featured the Festival at their annual Cinema and Human Rights Day.
We always begin Saturday with a screening followed by a lunchtime debate, and today’s topic was Double Discrimination. Rinkoo Barpaga’s 30-minute documentary for BSL Zone discussed the hidden topic of racism within the Deaf community. We continued talking about the additional barriers facing BAME Deaf and disabled people, including class barriers, and the impact of this on BAME disabled actors and filmmakers. Yvonne Brouwers from Act Up! Newham pointed out that the barriers begin in education, and everyone agreed on the importance of access to inclusive education and training. It was also noted that, while audiences at our live performances had been very good, they had not included representatives from established organisations and venues seeking to programme the artists – overwhelmingly from BAME backgrounds, and living in one of the poorer boroughs – elsewhere.
Our Films from the East programme, which immediately followed lunch, concluded with My Shape, a film by Stephen Lee Hodgkins celebrating the life and poetry of Barbara Stewart, who lived in Tower Hamlets and died earlier in the year. Barbara was proud to be a Black disabled poet, and the film underlined our loss. Her work was in turns autobiographical and called out to other disabled people to value themselves and their lives too. The film was created using an audio recording of poems from Barbara’s new book My Shape, and imagery that the two had begun to work on together before she died. We will be helping to make her book more widely known in the new year.
There were too many outstanding films to mention, but I also particularly enjoyed watching Close Up: June Smith, a BSL Zone interview. June’s story, its drama heightened for being told simply to a studio interviewer, introduced the co-founder of the LGBT Deaf organisation Brothers and Sisters to a hearing/hetero audience. Ross Turnbull’s Terminal Device, a Canadian film having its UK premiere, interrogated the representation of people with prosthetic hands within film and television within an autobiographical journey. As with Double Discrimination earlier, the film exposed the judgements people make about ‘difference’, through fear, ignorance and the constant consumption of negative stereotypes.
Tonight’s feature film (and another UK premiere), A Normal Life, concluded our Human Rights Day programme with a film from the perspective of a sibling. As the recent BBC documentary showed, prospective parents of children with Down syndrome are commonly warned about the negative impact on siblings if the pregnancy continues. Reality, though, bears little resemblance to the stereotype, and this is beautifully reflected in Alex Herz’s debut feature (and another UK premiere). Here, older brother Michael spends the week before he leaves for college with his family. His younger brother, Nathan, has Down Syndrome, but at 14 is also showing an interest in girls and is frustrated by the restrictions placed on his liberty by their parents. By the end, when Michael says a tearful goodbye, we realise that Michael’s concerns about Nathan being granted his independence also reflect Michael’s own anxiety about leaving his family behind. However, Michael’s father has reassured him that Nathan – a passionate and talented basketball player, music lover and computer games enthusiast – will be fine, and we know that Michael will be too.
A theme that ran throughout the audience discussions and the voices of disabled people seen on film today was that we are all human, ‘normal’ in our diversity, and we all deserve to be equally valued and included. We are proud that the Together! Disability Film Festival continues to provide a platform, both this weekend at the Old Town Hall Stratford and online in the future, for films where positive and wide-ranging images of disabled people replace the negative stereotypes and general invisibility of disabled people’s lives. But we also very much enjoyed the UK festival premiere of Katherine Araniello’s WOW Sick Bitch Crips new film in the Animation programme, where a politically incorrect cartoon character – well, if you are able to, watch it for yourselves here… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5KiCBznQW8k
Many thanks to the filmmakers; Together! crew; Active Newham Volunteers; and the staff at the Old Town Hall Stratford.
Next: Endless Talent