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Film Festival Promotes On-Screen Inclusiveness for People With Disabilities

By Emily Frost | March 7, 2014 10:32am
 The film festival is the largest in the country to focus on disabilities, said the festival director.
Reelabilities Film Festival
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UPPER WEST SIDE — A film festival aimed at promoting inclusiveness by featuring people with disabilities kicked off this week at the JCC in Manhattan.

The Reelabilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival runs through March 11 with a lineup of 23 films, including shorts, features and documentaries that were winnowed down from more than 300 entries. The movies will show at 32 different sites across the city.

"In Hollywood films, somehow disabilities have been excluded for the most part," said Isaac Zablocki, the festival's director. 

But Reelabilities, which is organized by the JCC, aims to balance that by showing that disabilities are a natural part of life, he said. The movies they selected for their sixth  festival feature main characters who are blind, autistic, using a wheelchair, and many other disabilities, Zablocki said.

"It’s amazing to see groups of people with disabilities feel included," he said, adding that the films also draw packed audiences of people with disabilities who are enthusiastic about seeing others like themselves on screen.

That includes rows of audience members in wheelchairs lined up in the theater, as well as sections of deaf people waving their hands side to side, in the sign language method of clapping.

In years past, about 5,000 people have attended, representing about a 50-50 mix of people with and without disabilities, he said. 

Some films, like the feature "Run and Jump" starring "SNL" alum Will Forte, involve a character with a disability who isn't the focus of the movie. Instead, the film revolves around a love story, with the disability just one element in the plot.

This kind of portrayal goes a long way toward normalizing the appearance of people with disabilities that is so often absent from mainstream films, Zablocki said.

In another film, a documentary called "Little World," a 20-year-old uses his wheelchair to journey from Spain to New Zealand with only 20 Euros and the help of strangers. 

"He’s really in your face with his disability. He doesn’t feel that a disability should be under the radar," said Zablocki of the film's star, adding that he hopes it will lead to a robust debate after the screening. 

The festival requires a post-film discussion, led by those involved in the movie as well as disability experts. 

Filmgoers are also given a survey asking whether the movie helped increase their understanding of disabilities — with the responses almost always a resounding "yes," Zablocki said.

On March 11, the festival's closing night, five people will tell their stories in front of a live audience at the JCC, as part of a collaboration with storytelling series The Moth.

Reelabilities will also show in dozens of cities across the country.