What is the largest minority group in the United States? Hint: it is the only minority group to which anyone may belong, a group that many of us will join with the passage of time, but a group that is woefully underrepresented in many elements of American life, including the arts.
As the U.S. Census defines members of this group, they are “persons with a limitation in a functional activity or a social role,” more commonly referred to as people with disabilities, and they make up 20 percent of the population. But, as the fourth annual ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival, which runs from Feb. 9-14, reminds us, a frustratingly small percentage of the films made here touch on their lives.
“America is not leading the way, unfortunately,” says Isaac Zablocki, director of film programs at the JCC in Manhattan, which organizes and hosts the event here. “The fewest films in the festival come from American filmmakers because they exist in a commercial system with almost no governmental support. Audiences shy away from the topic.”
The programmers for ReelAbilities have a simple solution.
“We scare the shyness out of them,” Zablocki says, chuckling. “People come away from the festival saying, ‘I want to see more.’”
The connection between the JCC and ReelAbilities is typical of a growing awareness in the Jewish communal world of the neglect of people with disabilities both in the Jewish community and the world at large. As recent stories in this newspaper have underlined, Jewish organizations have been taking a more proactive stance on these issues.
“Minorities frequently find one another,” Zablocki says. “The JCC doesn’t position this as a specifically Jewish event; we try to be as inclusive as possible. But this has been a conscious mission of the Jewish community, and I would hope we would be as active at the forefront as we were in the beginnings of the civil rights movement. We receive generous support from UJA-Federation [of New York], and as we go around the country promoting the festival we find the Jewish community heavily involved.”
The very fact that ReelAbilities is promoted around the country sets it apart from most film events. Quite simply, the festival is promoted around the country because, by design, it is held around the country. It is a national event that will take place in a dozen cities this year, as well as in 23 locations in the New York metropolitan area.
The criteria by which films are judged for selection are unique as well. Of course, the committee that programs films for ReelAbilities is looking for good films. But it is seeking something more.
“We look for great films, but a film’s approach to disability is equally important,” Zablocki explains. “A lot of films take a pity approach or condescend to their characters with disabilities. We take a more progressive approach. We favor films that are about the people, not the disability. We are looking to give viewers access to a world in which some of the characters happen to have a disability.”
The programmers are also looking for a no-holds-barred tone.
“We’re not afraid to be in-your-face, not afraid to show anything,” he continues. “Frankly, we’re more impressed by movies that have it ‘in-your-face.’ They’re often the better films. Any film that needs to dance around the topic is not going to present it realistically. No pity. No shame. The films that really put it ‘out there’ are the most honest pieces.”
The festival also actively seeks out films made by people with disabilities, films that offer “an insider’s look at these stories,” as Zablocki puts it.
The bulk of the films in the festival come from countries where subsidies are available to filmmakers and where — regardless of other political circumstances — there is a strong governmental impetus to support people with disabilities.
“We get a lot of films from China,” Zablocki says. “This year’s opening night film, ‘Ocean Heaven,’ is Chinese. There appears to be a real interest in these issues from their government.”
“Ocean Heaven” is the story of a father trying to teach his autistic son to manage on his own. Interestingly, the father is played by martial-arts star Jet Li, in his first dramatic role. For Li the film was a labor of love, connected to the charitable foundation he heads.
One of the films about which Zablocki is particularly enthusiastic is the Iranian feature “Mourning.”
“This is a fantastic film about a deaf couple trying to find a way to tell their nephew that his parents have been killed in an accident,” he says. “We actually kept the door open a bit [past our deadline] so that we could have the film in the festival.”
The continued success and steady growth of ReelAbilities may be a reflection of a greater global sensitivity to issues of disability both in and outside of the film industry. Zablocki takes hope from the success of “The Surrogate,” a film about real-life poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, who as a child contracted polio, which paralyzed him from the neck down. Written and directed by Ben Lewin, a Jewish polio survivor, the film won the Audience award for dramatic features at this year’s Sundance festival, and was acquired for theatrical distribution by Fox Searchlight.
In the meantime, Zablocki expects the event to grow, with the addition of an on-line presence and more venues in the years to come.
“Hey, we haven’t done an event in California, yet,” he says. “We’re not limiting our growth at all.”
The fourth annual ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival runs Feb. 9-14 all over the city. In addition to the film screenings, there are many programs with speakers, Q&A sessions with filmmakers and more. For locations, schedule and information, go to http://newyork.reelabilities.org.