Superfest film shorts, panel examine increasing visibility of disability in mainstream film

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Superfest, the world’s longest disability film festival, continued its ADA-30 celebration with Disability Pride Philadelphia by screening film shorts that provide a no-holds-barred glimpse into the diversity of disability. The July 10 screening was followed by a panel discussion of the films’ impact in the current landscape and the growing momentum of disability visibility in mainstream film.

Now celebrating 20 years, the first film short, “Disability Culture Rap,” was the creation of the late Cheryl Wade, a cultural arts poet performer, disability rights activist and UC Berkeley alumna. Even as the powerful words of the lilting rap sweeps the audience through the disability rights movement — of which many campus alumni have played a huge role — a diverse range of disability voices unapologetically enlighten the audience on disability culture: “It’s about who we are … It’s about power … It’s about freedom!”

As panelist Lawrence Carter-Long remarked, most media around disability seems to beg to be included and accepted, but “Disability Culture Rap” gets in the audience’s face and demands that it sees “disability on disability’s own terms.” Carter-Long is the current communications director at the Berkeley-based Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, and heads its Disability and Media Alliance Project.

The 2016 short, “The Barber of Augusta,” is about a young man who had been diagnosed with conduct disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Still, he finds his way to connect: He wears a superhero costume and harnesses his superpower of cutting hair, particularly for the homeless community, on the streets of Toronto at night.

The avant-garde 2014 “Bastion” leaves the audience in almost a state of wonderment. A bald man had caught sight of himself in a shop window and, having decided he needed a haircut, gets a haircut from the barber inside and even pays him for the cut.

Panel moderator and Superfest coordinator, Emily Beitiks, explained that “Bastion” had opened as an installation piece at an art gallery, where viewers sat in a barber chair in the middle of the room and watched the film playing in surround sound. What made it exciting for Superfest was this film short’s stealth approach to including disability by taking a nuanced perspective. The lead character is played by someone with autism, though disability never entered the conversations around the movie at any of the mainstream festivals where it was screened. 

The next animated 2014 short, “The Chili Story,” was directed by Patty Berne, co-founder of the Bay Area-based Sins Invalid project, which focuses on disability justice in performing arts. The short itself is a humorous and ironic take on the taboos both inside and outside of disability.

The 2015 “The Right To Be Rescued,” set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, highlights the dire necessity of cities to include the needs of people with disabilities in their disaster management plans. One such heartbreaking story is the late Benilda Caixeta, who is diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair. She is abandoned by her driver who tells her, “I can’t come and get you, I’ve got my own family to worry about.” Her friend narrates how their phone conversation is cut short as floodwater from the broken levees rushes into Caixeta’s home. 

The final short was the 2012 “Everything Is Incredible.” It follows Agustin, a Honduran man who uses a wheelchair due to childhood polio. He has been painstakingly building a helicopter, piece by piece, from scrap material since 1958. Reactions to him range from admiration to derision even as people around him say his task is impossible. 

The panel discussion then turned to the recent momentum of disability now becoming part of mainstream film in a way it had not been previously. Panelist Ajani Murray, who is both an actor and public speaker, felt that this was because the world had become smaller. With streaming services and social media such as YouTube, artists did not have to go through big studios and TV anymore. As Carter-Long remarked, “You can’t put the genie back in the bottle now … (People are) getting hip to the idea there’s always been a disability history, there’s always been disability culture. And they are starting to wonder why they didn’t know about it.”

In response to an audience question on how to close the gap and educate the world, Murray explained that while policy and law can be hard to understand, art is “understandable and palpable.” Carter-Long added that artistic mediums are a good way to sensitize people by getting to their heart first before getting into laws. 

The panelists also had advice for aspiring filmmakers in the audience. Screenwriter Matthew Alaniz urged filmmakers to “create content and put it out there. Take advantage of the fact that the ability to record content is in everyone’s pocket now.” Murray stressed the importance of community and networking in order to do so, while Carter-Long left the audience members with this assurance: “There is a history and a lineage and a community out here that’s got your back.”

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected].