Film Festival Focuses on Disabilities

With Jewish Groups' Help, 'ReelAbilities' Goes National

Different Fest: The ReelAbilities festival features films about people with disabilities. In ‘Ocean Heaven, Wen Zhang plays an autistic young adult.
reelabilities
Different Fest: The ReelAbilities festival features films about people with disabilities. In ‘Ocean Heaven, Wen Zhang plays an autistic young adult.

By Gabrielle Birkner

Published February 10, 2012, issue of February 17, 2012.
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In addition to “Girlfriend,” this year’s slate includes the Iranian film “Soog” (“Mourning”), in which a deaf couple must break tragic news to their young, hearing nephew, and “Princess,” a musical biopic from Finland about a woman who is committed to a psychiatric hospital for more than 50 years and succeeds in bringing joy and healing to her fellow patients. And lest anyone doubt the challenges in any culture that families with autistic children face, there is an Israeli entry on the subject, “Mabul” and a Chinese one, “Ocean Heaven,” starring Jet Li.

Documentary selections include the Portuguese-language “Body and Soul,” about a modern dance troupe made up of disabled Mozambicans, including a young woman who lost both of her legs in an accident, and “Defining Beauty,” about the contestants vying for the “Ms. Wheelchair America” title.

Festival organizers say that they aim to make ReelAbilities screenings and other programming accessible to the widest possible audience. Screening venues are all handicapped friendly.

ReelAbilities has been “a mind-expanding, heart-expanding experience, in the doing and in the participating,” Altman said. “At the end of the first festival, I got an angry note that blind people couldn’t participate. I thought, ‘Blind people go to movies?’”

They do, she learned — enjoying cinema with the help of what’s known as audio description, essentially detailed narration of what’s happening on screen. The federation arranged a three-day seminar to train volunteers in audio description, and the service has been available upon request to festival-goers ever since. So, too, is sign language interpretation for the hearing impaired.

The Schottenstein Foundation is not alone in its pursuit of funding opportunities in the disability arena. A growing number of Jewish philanthropies are looking to invest more money, more strategically in the area of special needs programming and services, Andres Spokoiny, president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, told the Forward.

Last December, JFN and the Ruderman Family Foundation held their second annual Advance conference on Jewish special-needs funding. Earlier in the year, JFN launched a peer network so that donors and philanthropies committed to disability advocacy can discuss the best practices and avenues for collaboration.

The interest is evidence of a shift “toward being more welcoming and inclusive” to once-marginalized segments of the Jewish community, including the special-needs population.

“People are realizing that more and more people with disabilities are excluded from the Jewish community, and that has a bad impact on the people suffering from exclusion, but also on the Jewish community, which is missing out on these people,” Spokoiny said.

Harris said he believes that ReelAbilities has the potential to upend common stereotypes about people with, and films about, disabilities.

“People think the films are going to be depressing, but they are so uplifting,” said Harris, whose 24-year-old son, Jason, has Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. “They’re about people who have challenges, but also about people who, through their spirit, overcome these challenges.”

Contact Gabrielle Birkner at birkner@forward.com and on Twitter @gabibirkner


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