An already seated crowd filled up the dimly lit exhibition-turned-screening room at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life on Oct. 20. The back wall was neatly lined with wheelchair users, accompanied by patrons sitting in the “chemical/scent free” seating area at the back corner of the audience. A poodle in a bright red vest was attentively focused on the two screens in front of them, one showing the first film of the evening and the other displaying a transcription of the dialogue and audio description of the feature.
For more than 30 years, the Superfest International Disability Film Festival has been a leader in modeling accessibility within the environment of the festival.
Hosted and produced by The Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability and LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired and centered around the mission of representing disability, Superfest provides a platform for underrepresented filmmakers to share their definitions, representations and artistry with a diverse range of attendees.
The overarching theme of the evening was introduced by Karen Nakamura, a Superfest judge and professor of anthropology — “Superfest is not ‘Disability 101.’ It is 201 and above. ‘Disability 201’ says disabled people are badass and good ass!”
After the whoops and cheers from the audience members subsided, the festival began.
Dynamic and fun performances of wheelchair users in synchronized dance in an animated short and the raw emotions of actors and actresses on screen were openly recounted by audio description for the enjoyment of patrons with low vision or blindness. ASL interpretation and live captioning of festival announcements, complete with transcripts of noises coming from the audience, provided an additional component of inclusivity for the hard of hearing or deaf.
Superfest was developed with the goal that attendees do not have to make prior arrangements in regards to their disabilities and specific needs. With the realities of competing accommodations — accommodations for some may become barriers for others — the festival also provided a quiet space and a screening with closed audio description. These steps toward accessibility allowed the audience to fully participate in the cinematic experience offered.
The eclectic collection of films presented included a range of depictions of disabilities all around the world. The screened films ranged from a documentary that followed two filmmakers thousands of miles from their home on their quest to alleviate their chronic pain, resulting from their respective conditions, to action shorts about a smooth James Bond-esque character who lost his legs in a childhood accident. Superfest showcased the multifaceted experiences of individuals who are so often tied to tropes displayed in mainstream media representations.
As someone who does not understand the marginalization experienced by people with disabilities, I was provided with a rare glimpse by Superfest of the complexities of disabilities that are otherwise not highlighted in today’s media. It allowed me to witness a multitude of dialogues and marvel in the cinematic expressions of life with a disability. For those who were there and a part of the community of people with disabilities, the festival evoked a deeper emotional connection.
As a film festival created and judged by people with disabilities for people with disabilities, Superfest sparked intercommunal conversations in an environment of peers.
“Superfest pushes us as a community because it causes difficult conversations about the diversity in our community,” Nakamura explained at the beginning of the first Q&A session.
With films covering topics of cure seeking, ableism and intersectional advocacy — audience members and filmmakers had a lot to unpack. For example, “This is Normal,” the dramatic short that follows a young woman who was “cured” of her deafness evoked strong feelings from the presenters.
“It was very well done and raised wonderful issues, but I wondered about its inclusion,” Nakamura responded.
Filmmaker Fabian Wigren added, “I was a bit afraid when suddenly she heard clearly. I was a bit annoyed by that, but I think it had the proper ending,” in reference to the ending scene in which the woman covers her ears to block out the sounds of waves crashing.
As the first session wound down, the hosts, Catherine Kudlick, the director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability and Bryan Bashin, CEO of LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, sent the audience off with their closing remarks.
“What is unique about what you have experienced tonight?” Kudlick asked the audience.
It was obvious — be it with accessible physical spaces, conversations or community interaction — Superfest is indeed an international leader in modeling accessibility.