6 March 2008
London Disability Arts Forum's (LDAF) eighth annual film festival took place at BFI Southbank in February 2008. Allan Sutherland concludes that the event reached a wider audience than ever
One of LDAF's key achievements has been the establishment of a regular disability film festival. The festival started at the Lux in 1999 and has taken place most years since then. Following the closure of the Lux in 2001, it moved to the National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank).
There are a number of other festivals of film and disability around the world, but almost all of them are run by non-disabled people, with a predominance of films that are about but not by disabled people. The LDAF festival is perhaps the only one that specifies 'significant creative involvement by disabled people' as a condition for all submissions.
The festival has provided an important outlet for filmmakers as diverse as Katherine Araniello and Liz Crow, as well as more established figures such as Stephen Dwoskin, whose Intoxicated By My Illness (Intensive Care) was screened at the fourth festival. It has introduced foreign work by artists such as Penny Fowler-Smith; Christine Olsen's My One-Legged Dream Lover; Jerry Smith and Cheryl Marie Wade's Disability Culture Rap; and Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell's A World Without Bodies. And it has promoted re-evaluation of classic works such as Tod Browning's Freaks and George Cukor's extraordinary 1941 melodrama, A Woman's Face.
Many people liked the opening night film, the comedy Special People, written and directed by Justin Edgar, in which a bunch of disabled teenagers puncture the pretensions of an ambitious but incompetent film-maker who hopes that their uplifting story will help him find his way back into the industry. I was less impressed (admittedly partly through having seen the short version). I felt the film lacked focus and some interesting story ideas were under-developed. The film needed at least one more script rewrite - a common weakness of writer/directors.
I was very intrigued by the Austrian Martin Nguyen's documentary I Want To Tell You Something (Ich Muss Dir Was Sagen) about a family with twin toddlers, one of whom is Deaf. The parents are learning sign in order to teach it to the children, though not without some resentment. I'd have liked more context about questions such as how prevalent oralism is in Austrian education, but the film is full of fascinating observational detail. In one scene, for example, the mother has a long conversation in sign with one of the twins - and with a shock, I suddenly realised that it was the hearing twin she was signing with.
I didn't manage to catch the Flemish film Ex Drummer (Koen Mortier 2007), one of the festival's hottest tickets, about an all-disabled punk band, the Feminists. Pity - any film that works as hard to be offensive as this one reputedly does might be right up my street.
The festival organisers managed to persuade the BBC to let them screen the docudrama The Silent Twins, never seen since its transmission in 1986. The play tells the story of identical twins June and Jennifer Gibbons, who, in 'elective mute syndrome' had decided in early childhood to speak to no-one but each other, and were committed to Broadmoor after being convicted of arson and theft. Written by journalist Marjorie Wallace, the one person who managed to win the twins' trust enough for them to speak to her, it draws upon their own writings to give a fascinating portrayal of two people locked into a silent but ferocious struggle for individual identity.
This year's re-evaluation session looked at '50s science-fiction classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man. Sci-fi provides an intriguing opportunity to see how abnormal body image or impairment are treated when they are not defined as disability. As presenter of this session, I had expected that some of the audience would be unfamiliar with the film, but I was surprised to find that even some of the disabled people who know the film had never previously thought to think of it as a movie about someone with a physical impairment.
Shameless: The Art of Disability is the first film in 22 years by Bonnie Sherr Klein, a leading feminist writer/director whose career was interrupted by a stroke. Collaborating with a group of leading disabled artists (David Roche, Catherine Frazee, Geoff McMurchy and Persimmon Blackbridge), she discusses impairment and risk-taking, and chronicles her own journey back to being a film-maker.
A very different account of living with the effects of stroke came in Mark Ware's The Dog That Barked Like a Bird. Using heavily computer-worked images and a voice-over, Ware describes the effects of his own stroke: 'I'm acting in a foreign film, but I don't know what language I'm speaking'. This is a thoughtful film, visually intriguing but articulate and intelligent.
For me the find of the festival was Cristiano Bortone's Red Like The Sky ('Rosso Come il Cielo'), After Mirco, an adventurous 10-year-old, loses his sight in an accident with his father's rifle, he is sent to a repressive special school. Naturally rebellious, he leads his classmates in escapades such as sneaking out to the local cinema. But illicit experimentation with the school tape recorder lets him discover how creating and editing sound effects can open a huge world of the imagination. With support from a radical teacher who believes that children have 'the right to creativity - not just obedience' they mount a show that astonishes their parents. This simple but engrossing story is based on the childhood experiences of Mirco Mencacci, a top Italian sound editor.
This year's Festival Co-Directors, David Watson and Peter Kinkead, have a strong film background. This was reflected in a strong set of technical seminars, such as the discussion of DIY Distribution in the Digital Age, and In the Frame sessions with disabled professionals: director Raina Haig, filmmaker Lou Birks, producer Ewan Marshall and actor Warwick Davis. I have heard the criticism that the festival has thereby lost its disability arts identity, but the truth is that the festival has needed for some time to bridge the gap between the worlds of disability arts and film. Past festivals have attracted people with interest in disability, but failed to attract people with an interest in film.
Following the withdrawal of LDAF's funding, the future of the festival is under threat. If it is destroyed, the loss to disability arts will be incalculable.