Ten Years On: Introduction to the Together! 2022 Disability Film Festival

Ju Gosling behind the screen at the Old Town Hall Stratford projecting the films in December 2018.

Artistic Director Dr Ju Gosling writes: This is our 11th annual international Together! Disability Film Festival, so we are looking back on the past decade as well as forward to the next three years. To start with a little history, until the late noughties London had a very well-respected international Disability Film Festival, organised by the Arts Council-funded London Disability Arts Forum (LDAF), and led by Julie McNamara and Caglar Kimyoncu. The London Disability Film Festival began at the Lottery funded Lux cinema in Hoxton, East London, and then moved to the British Film Institute’s Southbank Centre, next to the Thames in central London. This was a highly prestigious, though for many of us bleak and inaccessible, venue, with a very well-funded and accessible programme. Then, in 2009, Arts Council England changed its policies and withdrew funding for the regional Disability Arts Forums. The London Disability Film Festival was no more. Years later, the BFI told us they would not consider that level of funding for a Film Festival again, nor fund any new Film Festivals at the Southbank Centre rather than outside of London.

The Together! Disability Festival was originally intended as a one-off summer event in 2012, located in the temporary event space London Pleasure Gardens in the Royal Docks. As now, the Film Festival was part of the wider Together! 2012 Festival. The Together! 2012 Festival was organised by the UK Disabled People’s Council (UKDPC), sadly no more, but then based in Stratford. I led in my role as a Co Chair of Regard, the national LGBTQI+ Disabled people’s organisation. In this form, the Film Festival would have occupied a geodesic dome on the Royal Victoria Dock waterfront at the end of August, running for three days before the live acts started. It would have had a range of festival-type seating, and was programmed with the assumption that people would wander in and out randomly from the rest of the site. Entry to London Pleasure Gardens was to be free for all local residents.

Sadly — or possibly luckily — nothing came of our first plans for the Film Festival. London Pleasure Gardens closed halfway through the Olympics, losing a considerable amount of Newham Council’s money as a result. Security services had forced Olympics ticket holders back onto public transport to central London as soon as they left the Excel Centre venue, for which London Pleasure Gardens was the Olympic Park equivalent. We felt desperately sorry for the artists who had spent over a year building the site, only to lose everything. We relocated about half of our Together! 2012 Festival events to local community venues during the London 2012 Paralympics, but postponed the rest until Disability History Month, which was then relatively new. We wanted to ensure that we could engage properly with the community, in as many parts of the borough as possible, and didn’t want to rush.

Learning to edit at Gary Thomas’s low budget filmmaking workshop at Durning Hall on 6 December 2012.

Our first Film Festival took place on the Docklands campus of the University of East London on the second weekend in December 2012. We still designed our programmes for a drop-in audience — you can see the full programme here. (You can find all of the past programmes via the Archive pages, many with links online versions of the films, but you will need to access these via the pull-down menus. They form a unique record of Disability Film over the past decade.) We had access to a lecture theatre, but no technician, and the films were on DVDs. It was a learning curve! I studied film at UEA in the early 1980s and had worked in television in the 90s, as well as being an international artist filmmaker in the 00s, but this was a new experience. More successful was the two-day film-making workshop that led up to the Film Festival, at Durning Hall in Forest Gate. This was facilitated by professional filmmaker Gary Thomas, and attracted a range of residents from East London. The workshop set the pattern that we have followed since at Together! 2012 CIC, of open access and inclusive workshops. 2012 would have been our one and only Film Festival, but the participants in the different Together! 2012 Festival workshops we had run, and repeat audience members, asked for more. They wanted a continuing Festival, as well as year-round activities, and so in March 2013 Together! 2012 CIC was formally registered. You can find out more about Together! 2012 CIC’s history and current work here.

We moved the Together! 2013 Disability Film Festival to another University of East London location in Stratford, but it was not a good fit. Both University buildings were modern venues that met Equality Act standards, and had wheelchair-accessible public transport links. However, the students had all headed home by the end of November, and residents and visitors alike found the location too unfamiliar. We were still projecting DVDs, which was standard when working with projectors then, but involved a great deal more work than digital files today. All of the programmes had to be manually sorted into separate DVD pouches in the correct screening order beforehand, and swiftly ejected and swapped over each time on the day. The Animate! programme, which tended to consist of a number of very short films indeed, was a particular challenge! Being a powered wheelchair user didn’t help, because no table is ever the right height or the space big enough, but the advantage that I had over the others of being able to sit down and push a button to get around wasn’t lost on me over the years. My colleagues spent a great deal of time on their feet to ensure that our guests were welcomed and made comfortable. A special mention must go to Blake Jarrette Gibbons, who was our first volunteer in 2012 and has returned frequently since despite living on the other side of London.

The Old Town Hall Stratford made a good pop-up cinema venue.

The Together! Disability Film Festival really came into its own when we moved to the Old Town Hall Stratford in 2014. Unlike the University buildings, the Old Town Hall had no food and drinks facilities, but it was in the centre of Stratford, across from a sizeable indoor shopping centre covered in Christmas lights, and had even better accessible transport links than the University buildings. The Old Town Hall’s smaller event space, which was underneath the main hall, made the ideal venue for Together! 2012 CIC, which is a specialist pop-up arts organisation. It had its own foyer, and this provided a space for audience members and filmmakers to gather, as well as for an information table and refreshments table. A curtained pop-up rear projection screen and projector were set up semi-permanently between pillars at one end of the space. As with all Together! 2012 CIC events, all screenings were ‘relaxed’.

My tech table behind the screen in December 2018.

I sat behind the far pillar as the main projectionist — later, when we were able to fund headsets, I would also do live audio-description on demand. If I was watching the films on the big screen, I got used to seeing them in reverse from the back, but for audio-description I needed to watch the laptop I was controlling the screening from instead. In the early years most films were still on DVD, and it was not unknown for filmmakers or couriers to turn up with their final film on the day of the screening, sometimes minutes beforehand. (When we later moved to digital files, life only got slightly easier to start with, because most films came on USB sticks rather than as downloads.) My assistance dog had his own basket behind me, or sat in the audience with my partner when she was there with her own dog, his sister. We became so used to this arrangement over the years that one year, after supervising the locking up of the space one night when my partner wasn’t present, my PA and I only realised that my dog was still asleep behind the screen when we got to the car park. Fortunately, he was still asleep when I returned.

Filmmaker Justin Edgar introduces his film in 2018.

At the Old Town Hall we were able to create our original seating vision, bringing in sofas from other parts of the building to the foyer, with floor cushions inside the screening space as an alternative to chairs. In 2018 we introduced our Vibra benches, part of a joint project with artists in Montréal. These were plywood benches that acted as 100-watt speakers, with the sound vibrating through them. Cellist Jo-anne Cox fell in love with them, and has since produced two Vibrations projects of her own, working with vibration, sound and light. We could not have installed these benches without the support of The Small PA Company, who we’d first met in our early days as a CIC. Nor indeed could we have functioned as a Film Festival at all over the years without them. They were the regular technicians at the Old Town Hall, and grew used to our frantic texts as something that worked one moment stopped working the next. More often we worked things out for ourselves, such as the year when all of the expensive cabling failed and the sound was off (at least to my ears) all of the first evening, but a £2.99 audio lead finally solved the problem. Being in central Stratford was a boon in terms of access to shops, and later even to an Apple store.

We always provided free refreshments at the Film Festival, as we did at other Together! 2012 events. (Everything we do is free, because finance is a huge access barrier, and not just for Disabled people.) In our first years, these involved a huge range of sweet drinks and pre-packaged snacks from the discount store, but we soon learned that 99% of people just wanted to eat plain crisps and Haribo, and that sweetened drinks did no one any favours. We were also able to collaborate on two occasions with a local pop-up restaurant in Stratford, Gerry’s, once we moved to the Old Town Hall, with discounts for Festival goers, and informal meetings with filmmakers at the end of each day. We soon introduced a Saturday lunchtime live event as well as the two-day workshop beforehand, with British Sign Language interpretation and a free lunch. Topics over the years included a debate about casting, with Disabled and non-disabled filmmakers, and a funding presentation from Film London.

Hot drinks were also needed at the Film Festival, particularly by the volunteers running the Festivals, but also by everyone on cold days. Once we moved to the Old Town Hall, we took our own kettles and pre-mixed drink cups into the charmingly named ‘Tardis’, a smaller room which we also used as a Green Room. This had an entrance to our pop-up cinema just to the side of the screen, as well as another one from the foyer. My fellow CIC director Sarah Hughes made numerous hot drinks over the years for everyone during the breaks between programmes. I had a stash of the packaged biscuits and sweets to snack on behind my pillar, and Sarah fetched me drinks regularly. The weather varied a great deal over the years, and sometimes it snowed — we learned to bring in fan heaters to supplement the heating during cold years, but it was often very draughty behind the screen whatever the weather outside, and the hot drinks were always very welcome. (A fan heater was out for me, in case it made the screen wobble.)

This is not to say that the Old Town Hall was without its challenges. In the early days there were always other events on simultaneously, and it was not unknown for party guests to descend down the back stairs into our foyer. Fortunately, our events ended before parties got really noisy — 8pm is what we consider to be the limit for inclusive events, not least because most care workers go off duty at 9pm. The wheelchair access at the Old Town Hall was Victorian, though somehow not much worse than the current standards. Loading and unloading though the back could be a challenge, as we were competing for space with other events, and securing enough parking for everyone usually involved a row with at least one person. Fortunately, the vast majority of the Old Town Hall staff were wonderful, and greeted us enthusiastically each year even though they knew we would soon be asking for extra help. We were always grateful to Newham Volunteers for providing additional stewards. We also had help from some wonderful students over the years, particularly with preparing the programme notes, but also with delivery. We have been sad to see the barriers faced by Disabled film graduates not improve over the years, but have been grateful for the platform that the Festival provides us with to highlight issues and challenge practices.

The biggest challenge at the Old Town Hall came early on, when we arrived on the Sunday morning to find that all of our cabling had been ripped out and thrown behind the screen. Apparently there had been a regular church booking, and they had forgotten that they had been upgraded to the main hall that weekend. Not that this explained why they had ripped out our cables. Setting up any Together! 2012 CIC in-person event included using hazard tape to put down a loop of wire around the seating area connected to the sound system, to create access for hearing aid users. This was a time-consuming exercise, but worse was seeing the wire all glued together. We missed showing our first programme that day because of putting it back together, the one and only time a screening failed. All that afternoon, the ceiling vibrated as the gathering continued, with me turning the sound higher and higher to compensate. Fortunately, they had disappeared by the following year. Setting up the space was always a physical challenge, though. So was taking it all down at the end of a long weekend, loading it into my wheelchair-accessible van and then unloading it all again. The importance of putting the induction loop in was underlined one year by a producer, who had come down to London for the weekend in order to attend the Saturday lunchtime event. “I never knew what I was missing,” she said. “This is the first time in my career that I have ever been able to hear an event properly.” Our induction loop system cost less than £150, and our PA system about the same.

Filmmakers Raina Haig and Michael Achtmann lead an audio-description workshop for filmmakers at West Ham Church in December 2018.

Bringing people together was what made it all worthwhile. We never had a large audience, but we always had international visitors — we were very pleased to welcome a group of Finnish filmmakers who returned every year — and people from out of London as well as locals. A wonderful variety of filmmakers came through the doors, and so did some fantastic workshop leaders. For some years from 2013, we based our workshops at the McGrath Centre in Stratford. This was a creative training centre for people with learning difficulties, run by Newham Council. The workshops attracted other Disabled people, both experienced and not, but this way we created a safe and inclusive space for the people who traditionally had been most excluded from filmmaking. The most significant development in Disability Film in the past decade has been the growth of filmmaking by people with learning difficulties, both behind and in front of the camera. LGBTQI+ visibility within Disability Film has also increased significantly since London 2012.

We have also come together with other Disability Film Festivals around the world, and other UK Film Festivals, to share and cross-programme work, echoing Together! 2012 CIC’s philosophy of ‘Together we are strong’. This approach has obvious benefits for filmmakers. Each year, the range of films being made is completely different, so we work more closely with different festivals on different years, but we have been very pleased to have longstanding relationships in particular with Oska Bright Film Festival, the UK’s long-established Film Festival by and for people with learning difficulties; SuperFest, the world’s longest-running Disability Film Festival; and Little Wing, the first film festival. I’ve also been a panellist representing the Together! Disability Film Festival at Edinburgh Film Festival and Glasgow Film Festival, and in 2022 was invited onto the Jury for the International Feature Documentary category at the Ramsgate International Film and TV Festival. You can see some of the other Festivals we have partnered with in the logos at the bottom of this page. In the year following each of our own Festivals, we are often asked to recommend films for other showcases too. These have included short film programmes for the Liberty Festival in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and in 2022 a programme for an event organised by the British Council in China.

Together! 2012 CIC Chair Julie Newman presents a Kat Award to Hari Budha Magar, star of Shanta Nepali’s film Nothing is Impossible, for Best Non-English Film 2019.

Another incredibly important function of the Festival over the years has been to honour our pioneers. The late David Morris inspired Together! 2012 CIC, and in 2012 we opened on the Friday evening with a special programme of his films. We still aim to gain the resources in the future to archive David’s work properly. The late Katherine Araniello was a pioneer in Disability Art Film, and in 2019, when we introduced awards for the first time, we named them after her and posthumously awarded her the Lifetime Achievement Award. Again, we opened on the Friday evening with a programme of her films. In 2020, we recognised Justin Edgar of 104 Films with another Lifetime Achievement Award, for everything he has done to promote Disability Feature Film as well as for his own filmmaking.

Little Devil star Sam Renke at the UK premiere at the Together! 2014 Disability Film Festival

We have been proud to be a platform to premiere films by Disabled filmmakers and about disability, where so few others exist. We have premiered wonderful films, such as Max Barber’s feature Little Devil in 2014, starring Samantha Renke in her first role. We have also showcased films of all budgets, genres and lengths, with the exception of sexually explicit material and anything but mild horror (for Safer Spaces reasons). One very welcome development, ten years on, is the growth in properly funded films that actively involve Disabled people in the making, and Disabled-centred films that go straight into the mainstream media. One of my viewing highlights of 2022 was Then Barbara Met Alan, commissioned by the BBC. Unfortunately, though, these opportunities are still available only to a tiny minority — and the BBC decided against having a Disabled director for Then Barbara Met Alan, impossible though it is to imagine them making the same decision about a Queer film or a film about Black Liberation.

In our first years we programmed Films from the East on a Saturday afternoon, showcasing locally made films and videos. More recently, local entries have been few and far between, as have low budget entries from elsewhere. I would love to think that these filmmakers have found their ideal homes on social media, but the reality is that many films came from professionally facilitated community based groups that no longer exist, or from Disabled people who no longer have the energy and support to create work. Together! 2012 CIC runs a monthly open-access Photographers and Filmmakers Club on the second Monday of each month, to provide ongoing development opportunities. We always welcome filmmakers, Disabled or not, who are prepared to spend an hour sharing their skills. As low budget films have become rarer, there has been a growth in Disabled filmmakers exploring new technologies. In 2019 we screened our first VR films, as a foyer installation.

Which brings us to 2020, and our move to becoming an online Film Festival. Covid left us no choice in the matter, not just because of the law, but also because I am in the extremely clinically vulnerable group, and, as it turned out in 2021, not able to be protected by vaccination. We assumed that entries would be affected by the pandemic in 2020 — they were, but instead of falling off, we received more than 1500. We aim to showcase a range of different perspectives from around the world, but this torrent of films illustrated the fact that attitudes to Disability among filmmakers are still very fixed. Our initial approach was to stream the programmes, following the same schedule we would have used in-person. As with our first, also rescheduled, Film Festival in 2012, this was a steep learning curve.  In 2021, we trialled uploading programmes for 24 hours instead, considerably widening the viewing options. This significantly increased our audiences, so we have retained this model for 2022. We have, however, switched from Vimeo to YouTube, enabling television viewing, and used filmmakers’ own links for feature films to avoid copyright issues. Going forward, we will continue as an online Film Festival. There are too many Disabled people in a similar position to me to make it viable to return to an in-person event. In fact, the whole future of non-commercial in-person film festivals is in jeopardy. 2022 has seen the closure of Edinburgh International Film Festival, the UK’s leading Film Festival, who in 2018 invited me to talk about and promote our Festival at a day celebrating Disability Film.

We are proud to be pioneers again, as we continue to explore how best to take advantages of the opportunities offered by online working. Most Disabled people could never access our Festival in person, of course. The closest they came was via our programmes, always published online with links included to any publicly available versions of the films being shown. Moving online extends access across geographical and environmental barriers, and makes it possible for far more international contributions and participation at live events. We have been very pleased to have significant input from North America to our filmmaker conversations over the past two years, which of course is entirely new. However, many Disabled and working-class people are still excluded from meaningful digital participation. This situation will, we hope, continue to improve, but today’s is a very different offer for Newham residents to being able to go to the Old Town Hall, sit down, and be brought free refreshments and the programme by someone they know.

Every year, the Film Festival has had a special place in my heart, and as with all Film Festivals, it has been a labour of love. The opportunity to spend a whole weekend watching a wide range of Disability films, all different, and different again each year, is one I share because I appreciate it so much. After not being able to leave the house since March 2020, curating the Festival is a privilege that I doubly appreciate. Watching these films, I can transcend continents, share and learn about a wide range of different experiences and understand different viewpoints, as well as being thoroughly entertained, lost in wonder, and occasionally enraged. And all in one weekend. But like all privileges, it needs to be passed on. Having caught Covid in the summer regardless of shielding, this year I have shared the curating with a young filmmaker, Emily Welch, for the first time, after she assisted me in 2021. Working with young filmmakers at the start of their career has been another privilege over the past decade, because I appreciate how valuable their time and effort is.

Thanks to Arts Council England, the future of the Together! Disability Film Festival is secure for the next three years. Together! 2012 CIC will be moving to a new year-round programme, with the Together! Disability Film Festival remaining alone in Disability History Month. This will enable us to devote increased resources to it, including contributions from our new apprentice and assistant artistic director thanks to increased funding from Arts Council England. It will be wonderful to pay trainees properly for the first time. We should also be able to source more sponsorship for live events — past supporters have included Channel 4, Bectu and Free@Last TV, to whom we remain very grateful. I am delighted that a decade after London 2012, we have created a real Paralympic Legacy for Disability Film. The London 2012 Paralympics are represented in this year’s programme in Short Stories 2, with Tyler’s Story.

Colour photograph of awards trophies.We want to know what you would like to see from the Together! Disability Film Festival over the next three years, whether or not you are Disabled, and whether you are involved in filmmaking behind or in front of the camera, or simply love to watch films. How do we make viewing at home as good an experience as watching in our relaxed screenings? How can we reproduce opportunities for the random foyer encounters that could be so productive? How can we involve international filmmakers more in the organisation, now that geography is no longer a barrier? What about watch parties? And should we introduce timed screenings on Zoom for live audio-description? Filmmakers have become much better at providing captioned films over the years, but audio-description, despite Raina Haig’s efforts over more than two decades, remains the exception. If you missed our Zoom event on 3 December, email us at film@together2012.org.uk

Together! 2022 Disability History Month Festival, 22 November - 8 December, www.together2012.org.uk Inclusive Dance, Drama, Exhibitions, Family Activities, Films, Music, Poetry & conversations, all free & from the comfort of your own home, with captions and British Sign Language interpretation. Including the international Together! 2022 Disability Film Festival 2-4 December 2022.Return to the Together! 2022 Disability Film Festival Programme