Documentary Filmmakers Rally for Disability in Films
“I hope I become obsolete someday,” declared documentary filmmaker Alice Elliott at a recent panel discussion. “I make films to change the world and I hope the day will come when I won’t be needed since people will be telling their own stories,” said Elliott at the panel discussion, Screening Disability, sponsored by the NYU Council for the Study of Disability. Elliott and fellow panelists and filmmakers Lawrence Carter Long, Anthony Di Salvo, Simi Linton, Ilana Trachtman and Issac Zablocki had a message for the public: it is time for the disabled to speak for themselves.
The struggle for a greater representation of people with disabilities in the film industry continues to be a slow, arduous process. To raise awareness of this issue, the panelists shared samples of their work and reflected on the fact that more progress is needed.
The discussion opened with the panelists denouncing Hollywood’s lukewarm attitude towards the disabled community. Although disabled characters can be seen on television and films, they are usually portrayed as subjects of pity or derision. Lawrence Carter Long, whose groundbreaking project, disThis! Film Series: Disability through a Whole New Lens, has garnered critical acclaim from reviewers, criticized these portrayals as limited and incomplete. “There are so many stories that haven’t been told. Our purpose is to challenge and provoke people to consider new perspectives,” said Long.
In discussing hackneyed perspectives, Elliott identified Tropic Thunder as one of the latest films that includes a mocking portrayal of a person with a mental disability. “A movie like that [Tropic Thunder] only perpetuates stereotypes. It is incomprehensible why something like this still occurs. There’s still a lot more work to be done,” noted Elliott, whose documentary, The Collector of Bedford Street, was nominated for an Academy award for its intimate look at the filmmaker’s 60-year-old neighbor, who has an intellectual disability, and the community that helps him maintain his independence.
Ilana Trachtman admitted that she was nervous about making her first disability film, Praying with Lior; however, she felt compelled to do it. “I was attending a retreat for the Jewish New Year when I heard the voice of someone praying…I was amazed by the strength of this boy’s emotion. When I heard he was having a Bar Mitzvah, I pictured the movie version. And then I realized that I could make it,” said Trachtman, whose award-wining documentaries have been shown on HBO Family, PBS, Showtime, ABC-TV and other networks. In addition to seeing Lior Liebling, a boy with Down’s Syndrome, study the ceremonial prayers with his father, the clip showed Lior leading his classmates in a Hebrew song as they enthusiastically clapped along.
An even rarer occurrence than movies about people with disabilities are movies made by people who are disabled. Simi Linton, a writer and filmmaker, became paralyzed below her waist in a car accident 30 years ago. Since then, Linton has become a vocal advocate for the rights of the disabled. Her latest project, Invitation to Dance, is a documentary film that deals with pleasure and freedom. Linton bemoaned the lack of disabled people representing themselves in the public arena. “Where are the disabled filmmakers? We have yet to see the stories of the collective “us”, said Linton.
A possible response to Linton’s question could be seen in Akemi Nishida, 24, a student at the CUNY Graduate Center, who was filming the discussion for a project that Long is working on. As Nishida controlled the camera, it was not immediately apparent that she has only 3 fingers on her right hand. Despite her disability, Nishida is determined to learn about the film industry and eventually make her own films. “I hope to inspire other women of color and disability to pursue their goals,” said Nishida. “It is important to help other people realize what they can do.”#