By Jenn Sheehy Everett
Eye-opening, thought-provoking, a catalyst for enriching conversation. This is what the ReelAbilities Film Festival promises audiences each year as the largest festival in the United States dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories, and artistic expressions of people with disabilities.
Launched in 2007 by disability activists and film professionals through JCC Manhattan in New York City, the ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival was the first of its kind to present a series of award-winning films by, about, and for people with disabilities. The festival has since expanded to more than a dozen cities across North America -- Boston among them -- as well as Canada, and soon, Mexico. The Boston ReelAbilities Film Festival began in 2012 as a program of the Boston Jewish Film Festival, a nearly 30-year-old organization that presents an annual event screening the best contemporary films on Jewish themes from around the world.
"There were always good disability-themed films playing in the Boston Jewish Film Festival, and we used to talk about whether we should put together a disability festival," said Jaymie Saks, executive director of the Boston Jewish Film Festival. "Then, in 2011, I answered a call from Saul Schottenstein Foundation B in Cincinnati, Ohio, about taking the ReelAbilities Festival national. We were put in touch with the Ruderman Family Foundation to help bring it to Boston, and we were off and running."
The Ruderman Family Foundation -- an organization that has been committed to advocating for and advancing the inclusion of people with disabilities for almost 14 years -- remains the largest sponsor of the Boston festival.
Other Boston festival sponsors include the J.E. & Z.B. Butler Foundation, Nancy Lune Marks Family Foundation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Special Needs Financial Planning, Emerson College, Mass Cultural Council, Jewish Community Day School, El Al Airlines, Peapod by Stop & Shop, PLAN of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Rita J. & Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation, and Rockland Trust Bank. Community partners -- many from disability organizations within the Greater Boston area -- also help spread the word about the event and participate in the festival.
"We've had a lot of discussions in our organization about whether our purpose is to provide a mirror for people with disabilities to see themselves on screen or a window for people without disabilities to see the lives of people with them," Saks noted. "Of course, it's both. We welcome everyone. Our audiences are a strong mix of people with disabilities, people who are familiar with disabilities (through work or family), and people who are there to see a great film because they're interested in the topic."
"One of our Foundation goals is to educate a wide audience about inclusion," added Sharon Shapiro, trustee and director of the Boston Office of the Ruderman Family Foundation. "Film, because of its entertainment value, does that in a way that maybe can't be done as effectively through other means."
The Boston ReelAbilities Film Festival is held each spring at wheelchair-accessible venues throughout the city. Past locations have included Emerson College, the Museum of Science, Museum of Fine Arts and area theatres, schools, and libraries. Films are chosen from a base list provided by ReelAbilities' New York headquarters (for which they have secured screening rights, captioning, etc.), as well as strong local content.
The documentary Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing, highlighting the emotional and physical recovery of individuals whose lives were forever changed by the event, is one example of local content that was a natural fit for the festival. Spaulding Rehabilitation Network and Globe Docs, a documentary film festival hosted by Boston Globe journalists, co-presented the screening on the closing night of the 2016 festival.
"Our ultimate goal is to make sure that we screen high-quality films that people want to come see and will have a good experience seeing," shared Mara Bresnahan, Boston ReelAbilities Film Festival director. "We offer a well-rounded slate covering different disability topics (autism, visual impairment, physical disabilities, mental health, etc.) and create really great conversations after the films. Having a panel discussion or a film director or film subject there to talk about the issues in the film is an important part of our programming and enriches the experience for the audience. We have such a great depth of [disability-focused] resources in Boston that we're able to build some really meaningful conversations."
"Generating conversation is an important part of any film festival," Saks added. "Otherwise, you can sit home and watch the films. The conversations we generate in listening to people's points-of-view and comments about what they have just seen are what make the difference and what make our work so valuable."
A noteworthy post-film discussion from a past ReelAbilities festival included two individuals with autism who were unable to communicate verbally, but were able to answer audience questions using keyboards that were connected to iPads and projected onto a screen for audience viewing.
All ReelAbilities films are recommended for ages 17 and older, unless otherwise noted, and most screenings are free to the public, due in part to requirements of the venues hosting them. Other screenings (more commonly opening and/or closing nights) are offered at a nominal charge. Complimentary tickets are available for groups from agencies serving people with disabilities. Information about the Spring 2018 festival will soon be available at reelboston.org.
Before then, audiences can enjoy ReelAbilities films that are included in the Boston Jewish Film Festival taking place from Nov. 8-20. Information about and tickets for this festival can be found at bjff.org. Feature film Keep the Change, a winner of multiple awards at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, is one notable film that will be screened. It explores the love story between two people with autism who meet in a social skills group in New York, and features lead actors (and a number of supporting cast members) who are on the autism spectrum. There has been much conversation and consternation about the casting of individuals without disabilities in the roles of people with them. The Ruderman Family Foundation has been particularly motivated to bring this casting issue to the forefront.
"Issues of inclusion continue to be a challenge in the entertainment world," Shapiro said. "The ReelAbilities Film Festival in Boston showcases the talent and accomplishments of people with disabilities and reminds us of the value of inclusion in mainstream films."
"The ReelAbilities films have taught me so much," Saks added. "I have completely changed my understanding of people with disabilities -- how much I have in common with them, what they're capable of, that they lead full lives. The [ReelAbilities] program has had a huge impact on me, and it's amazing to see it have that impact on other people, as well."
Individuals or groups interested in attending and/or supporting the Boston ReelAbilities Film Festival can visit reelboston.org to learn more and sign up for the festival mailing list. Filmmakers interested in submitting disability-themed films for consideration can contact Boston Festival Director Bresnahan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or submit to ReelAbilities' headquarters in New York for consideration for all ReelAbilities festivals.