Coming soon to a movie screen near you: the 11th annual ReelAbilities Film Festival, a rich mix of feature-length and short films focusing on disability in its many faces and forms. This festival‘s roster of documentary and narrative works spotlights the enormous variety of stories that can be told as people learn to harness the strengths and face the challenges of living with physical and intellectual disabilities. The festival will be held April 2 through April 9—primarily at the Marlene Meyerson Jewish Community Center on the Upper West Side, plus more than 20 other locations throughout the five boroughs and beyond. Many of the screenings will be followed by panel discussions or presentations by directors and others involved in the filmmaking process.
While films about disability are the driving force of this endeavor, the actual accessibility of each movie is also important to the festival’s backers. After all, why create a festival of movies about disability if those whose lives are the impetus for its development can’t participate? Thus not only is every location accessible to every moviegoer, but also the film screenings feature the kind of accessible technology that is often difficult to obtain at typical movie houses.
Each showing at the festival’s main JCC location will offer open captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing, along with hearing loops for users of assistive listening devices. Particularly exciting for the blind community, every single film screened at the JCC (the one location where all of the feature-length and short films will be shown) will have audio description available for those who want to use it. With this technology, a narrator describes onscreen action between dialogue sequences. Organizers will provide blind and visually impaired audience members with earbuds and individual hand-held transmitters tuned to the correct frequency so they can fully enjoy the experience.
This is the first time audio description will be available for every entry in the festival, said Isaac Zablocki, the event’s co-founder and director. “We are always pushing technologically to see how far we can go. We evolve every year, and this year we are more inclusive than ever.” However, while audio description transmitters will be on hand for every showing at the JCC, not all of the other venues will be able to offer them. Zablocki says those who want to take advantage should call their preferred location ahead of time to check availability of a particular assistive device.
The festival’s website has detailed information about each of the films that will be shown, including running time, a brief description, the name of the director and the country where the film originated. There are also schedules and contact information for each screening location. Tickets can be purchased directly through the website reelabilities.org, or by calling 646-505-5708 for voice or 877-505-6708 for TTY.
The festival opens Tuesday, April 2, with Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements, a multigenerational family portrait. This documentary debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and will also air on HBO, which produced the film along with Tahria Sheather and its Oscar-winning director, Irene Taylor Brodsky. The closing feature, screening on April 9, is The Drummer and the Keeper, a narrative Irish film directed by Nick Kelly. Its plot centers on two neuro-atypical boys: one a rock musician with bipolar disorder and the other a footballer with Asperger’s syndrome. In between is the world premiere of Me, My Mouth, and I, a documentary about an actress with Tourette’s syndrome directed by Sophie Robinson. Among the short films is Mapping the Disability Trap, by local filmmaker Jason DaSilva. It’s an unsparing look at DaSilva’s own challenges in the vein of his award-winning feature When I Walk, which chronicled his declining mobility following a diagnosis of an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis. Finally, those looking for a laugh can try Hot Flash, a comedic short from a web series about a woman whose menopausal symptoms transform her into a superhero.
In other words, there is something for everyone of every ability at ReelAbilities. Zablocki estimates that some 10,000 people will visit the festival this year during its New York–area run. After that, ReelAbilities goes global, with screenings across the United States, Canada, Europe and Israel. These smaller festivals will bleed into the launch of next year’s edition, which is sure to continue to breaking barriers.