Six years ago, when he was putting together the inaugural ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival, Isaac Zablocki sensed he was on to something.
“I immediately saw the potential of this,” he said last week in a telephone interview. Zablocki is director of film programs at the JCC in Manhattan and director of the festival as well.
ReelAbilities has grown steadily since its first year and, with its sixth edition, which begins March 6, it is bigger than ever. “We are dealing with the largest minority in America,” he explained. “It’s a completely underexposed minority. And the quality of the films coming in has been exponentially greater.”
As a result, one of the initial challenges of the festival, finding enough films, has dissipated. In fact, Zablocki says ruefully, the selection committee now faces the opposite problem.
“We had over 300 films submitted this year and we were overwhelmed by the quality,” he said. “We had to leave out a lot of great films.”
The result is a film festival that has gone national.
“This is by far the biggest program coming out of the JCC,” Zablocki said. “We’re in 14 cities already and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Here, we are in 32 venues this year” with 70 events in every borough, Westchester and Long Island.
Given its mission, ReelAbilities is faced with a unique set of challenges in expansion.
“Some of the most beautiful spaces [for film exhibition] were built before the compliance rules of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” he noted. “Even with ones that comply, it’s hard; we’ll have 50 wheelchairs showing up for a film.”
A less obvious but no less difficult problem arises in providing audio descriptions for blind moviegoers. For ReelAbilities, it provided an added opportunity to expand services to the community.
In a recent article for The Huffington Post, Zablocki wrote:
“After our first year of ReelAbilities, we learned that we had been ignoring the blind community. … We were introduced to audio-description for films, which allows people who have loss of vision to follow and enjoy movies. To our surprise, there was no one creating audio description in NY, so we brought up someone from DC and created a training program in the art of audio description for film. The graduates of this course continue to create descriptions for us annually.”
With its conscientious blend of fiction film and documentary, this year’s festival features an unusual mix of stars, ranging from actor Will Forte in “Run and Jump,” to professional surfer Bethany Hamilton, who is one of several aquatic athletes (her arm was bitten off in a shark attack) featured in the new documentary “The Current,” to NPR’s John Hockenberry, who will moderate one of the panel discussions. Hamilton and Hockenberry (who is in a wheelchair as a result of a spinal cord injury suffered in a car crash when he was 19) will appear in person at the events.
Interestingly, there seems to be a pattern to the films themselves, with certain disabilities and issues coming to the fore, and then moving into the background.
“We do see trends every year,” Zablocki said. “Last year it was sexuality and disability. There were a lot of films on the topic like “The Sessions,’ which enjoyed a successful theatrical run, and it spilled over into this year as well.”
The Israeli film “Do You Believe in Love?” is one offering that touches indirectly on that theme this year. It’s a portrait of Tova, a highly successful shadkhen, whose specialty is finding matches for people with disabilities and who is, herself, paralyzed due to muscular dystrophy. The Canadian film “Gabrielle” brings a frank approach to the story of developmentally disabled adults trying to experience a conventional loving relationship despite the disapproval of those “normal” people around them.
“Deafness came up a lot this year,” Zablocki added. “We had an overwhelming number of [submissions] on that topic.”
Perhaps the most potentially exciting film in this year’s program is “Lost and Sound,” a portrait of three people — a music critic, a dancer and a pianist — who are living through hearing loss. What makes this film from the UK unique is that the director, Lindsey Dryden, is herself partially deaf and experiencing the same process as her three subjects.
The film is also the product of a UK-based collective “whose films are made by people who are hearing-impaired, exploring the lives of people with some level of deafness,” Zablocki said. “Every year I can see the quality of the work rising. They’re making beautiful films.”
While all of this is exciting and laudable, one can’t help wonder if there is a direct connection to the Jewish world. The original creators of the festival were the JCC and UJA-Federation of New York. Obviously, many Jews live with disabilities but, as Zablocki noted, there is something more than that going on.
“I think it’s no coincidence that this is coming out of the Jewish community in the same way that we were engaged in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s,” he said. “All this stems from a core of being socially engaged and making the world a better place. In general the Jewish community is not active enough on this issue, but in some ways we are leading the way.”
The 6th Annual ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival runs from March 6-11 in over 30 locations in New York, Westchester and Long Island. For schedule and location, please go to newyork.reelabilities.org.