ReelAbilities Film Festival Showcases Movies by and About People With Disabilities

British actor Mat Fraser in Code of the Freaks, one of the films screening at the ReelAbilities Film Festival in Denver.
British actor Mat Fraser in Code of the Freaks, one of the films screening at the ReelAbilities Film Festival in Denver. Code of the Freaks
The movie industry has botched both hiring and representing people with disabilities. If non-disabled directors aren't frightening audiences with mentally and physically disabled monsters, they're tear-jerking-off crowds with trauma porn or treating people with disabilities like they're imbued with magical powers. Watch Freaks, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Miracle Worker, Forrest Gump, Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, Scent of a Woman or Radio for a cinematic history of how dehumanizing, patronizing and wrongheaded these representations can be.

In filmmaker Salome Chasnoff’s smart 2020 documentary Code of the Freaks, writers, filmmakers, actors and critics with disabilities talk about how the industry has mistreated and ridiculed their community from the early years of cinema to the present. Clips from dozens of films demonstrate just how rotten the treatment has been — and still is.

“There are a lot of bad actors out there and people acting in bad faith, putting false information out into the world that they know nothing about and choose to remain ignorant of because they’re given a buck,” explains filmmaker Tommy Heffron in Code of the Freaks. “It will guarantee an audience. It will be titillating. It will be 'Come one, come all...freak show.”

The film looks not just at disability, but also intersecting issues of gender, race, sexuality and class, and how they play into what types of disabled characters we see — and don’t see. The doc takes on how disability informs tropes like the Magical Negro, how blind women are represented as sexual objects to conquer, and how blind men are often shown fighting and driving cars — two of the only ways that Hollywood knows how to demonstrate virility. And when it comes to people with disabilities having sex — according to the movies, it's nearly always with a person who doesn't have a disability, and done out of pity or rage.

“What Hollywood’s got to stop doing is being disconnected from reality and stop serving its horrible agenda,” British actor Mat Fraser says in the doc.

Code of the Freaks will play as part of Denver's first ReelAbilities Film Festival, which runs online from May 5 through May 8. And if ever a documentary has demonstrated just how important this type of festival is, it’s this one.

ReelAbilities, the world's largest film festival showcasing movies by and about people with disabilities, was launched by the Jewish Community Center Manhattan in 2007; the organization offers a slate of films to satellite festivals nationwide that then do their own programming. The Denver JCC has been trying to bring the festival to town since 2015, and this year will mark its local debut.

In addition to Code of the Freaks, ReelAbilities will screen There’s Still Hope for Dreams: A PHAMALY Story, a documentary about Denver’s Phamaly Theatre Company, a local troupe of people with disabilities who create productions together; Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405, the portrait of a Los Angeles artist who has dealt with depression and anxiety; Living Art, the story of a woman with familial dysautonomia who uses art to communicate with others and make a living; Spectrum: A Story of the Mind, a live-action and animated film looking at sensory issues faced by people with autism; and Jmaxx and the Universal Language, a documentary about a teenager with autism who uses hip-hop dance to connect with the world.

Other programming includes a discussion with Chasnoff, Phamaly members and an actors' union representative; a creative mindfulness workshop called "How to Be Within Me," led by art therapist Arielle Rothenberg; and an adaptive dance/movement class for people of all abilities from the Colorado Conservatory of Dance and Art as Action.

"The Denver part of it is how we bring this content to the local community and utilize our platform to highlight local organizations in Denver doing very amazing work," says Amy Weiner Weiss, the ReelAbilities Denver organizer and director of festivals at the Denver JCC's Mizel Arts and Culture Center. “All of the films deal with some element of art, performance, creative expression in general. The supplemental content all handles creative expression as well.”

The festival should provoke plenty of conversations that many in the city’s film community have avoided — about representation in the movies that play in theaters; labor in cinema; whose stories are being told and by whom; and the accessibility of the movie-going experience itself.

Some of those are issues that the JCC itself is facing head-on — both in how it thinks about what kind of cultural activities it's programming and how accessible those offerings are.

All programming for the festival is available online. Viewers can rewind or pause the content or control the volume and lighting in a way that works for any sensory issues. Films and discussions will include open captioning — written descriptions of scenes, music and dialogue that are part of the file itself, so people don’t have to access it through special closed-captioning technology. There will also be ASL interpreters and audio descriptions for the programs.

“It’s important for us to think about how we can make sure that when we resume in person that we have ASL interpreters and audio description live,” Weiner Weiss says. “Logistically, it’s very approachable to do this in person. It’s something we’d like to be incorporating in all of our programming. It really showed us the gap and ways we can close it.”

Weiner Weiss hopes the festival challenges the broader Denver cultural scene to expand its thinking about disability and accessibility.

“Part of the work of putting this fest together for us really highlighted the gap that exists in programming everywhere,” Weiner Weiss says. “It really forced us to look at the way we move in the world and present programming."

For more on the ReelAbilities Denver film festival, which runs online May 5 to 8, go to the JCC Denver website.
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris