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Film Festival Tackles Topics Affecting the Disabled

Many in the know are predicting that “The King’s Speech,” a film about the former British king struggling to overcome his speech impediment, will take home the award for Best Picture later this month at the Academy Awards. But "The King's Speech" is anything but exciting to Isaac Zablocki, who is the director of the Israel Film Center at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Manhattan. “Hollywood films about disability are always either about the heroic overcoming of a disability, or they are just tearjerkers,” he says. “We avoid those two concepts altogether. We look for films that are a little more groundbreaking, a little more real.”

Zablocki is talking about Reelabillities, a film festival organized by the JCC that presents movies about disabilities. Now in its third year, the festival kicks off on Thursday, February 3 at 20 New York area venues, and runs through February 8. Reelabillities includes 15 films dealing with topics from mental illness to developmental disabilities like Down's syndrome.

Zablocki says that unlike critically-acclaimed commercial films discussing disabilities like "Rain Man" or "Million Dollar Baby," his festival’s films are aiming to paint a more nuanced portrait of disability. “Anita,” for example, is about a young woman with Down's syndrome who gets lost in Buenos Aires following the 1994 bombing at an Argentinean Jewish center. “My Spectacular Theater” is about love and heartbreak at a Beijing movie theater for the blind.

With the exception of two documentaries, all the films in Reelabillities were made overseas, in places like the U.K., China, Australia and Spain. “In other countries, where there are government funds for filmmaking, there are a lot more films on disabilities,” says Zablocki. “America, with the commercial system, really shies away from the topic of disability. It's part of the goal of the festival to overcome these taboos.”

The festival’s organizers understand that films about people with handicaps can be a hard thing for many audiences to deal with, but Zablocki says that’s part of the point of the festival. “We’re in your face,” he says. The festival’s poster shows a still from the film “Warrior Champions,” a documentary about amputee vets from the Iraq war at the Beijing Paralympics. The athlete pictured is half-clad in uniform and half-clad in a one-piece swimsuit with her false leg clearly on display.

That approach seems to be working. The festival has grown since its inception in 2008 and has attracted sizeable audiences from outside the disabled community. “I think it’s indicative about how attitudes about disability are changing in our society,” says Lawrence Carter-Long, an advocate for the disabled who started a disability film series of his own at NYU, titled DisTHIS! “We’re finding more and more disabled people in the workplace. More people are coming back from wars and surviving injuries they never would have survived before. More people are aging into disability than ever before. There’s an increase in children being born with autism. Forty years ago, the tendency was to keep the disabled behind closed doors. That’s not the case anymore.”

Carter-Long adds that over 20 years have passed since the landmark Americans with Disabilities Act. “Now, disabled people are finally demanding a place at the table, whether it’s the board room or the screening room,” he says. “As a result, the movies are more nuanced, more interesting than the made-for-TV movies we saw in the 70s.”

At the Jewish Community Center, Zablocki curates several film festivals every year, including the Faygeleh Festival on the niche genre of Gay and Lesbian Jewish Film. He says he’s interested in an educational mission that’s greater than just presenting great films. "Our goal is always to have the conversations afterwards and learn the lessons form the films and take the films off the screen. And find ways to be changed by the topic,” he said.