On Monday, April 8, at the David Rubenstein Atrium, Accessibility at Lincoln Center and ReelAbilities Film Festival will present a free screening of Intelligent Lives, a documentary that examines what it means to be intelligent. The screening will be followed by an interactive panel discussion and will feature audio description, designed for guests who are blind or have low vision. To request an audio description receiver, please contact [email protected] or 212.875.5375. For full festival schedule and information, visit ReelAbilities.org/NewYork.
Accessibility at Lincoln Center will celebrate its fifth year this April as a venue partner for ReelAbilities Film Festival. Founded in New York in 2007, ReelAbilities is the largest film festival in the United States dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories, and artistic expressions of people with disabilities.
This year's Atrium screening presents Intelligent Lives, a documentary film featuring three young American adults with intellectual disabilities as they navigate education and the workforce—all while challenging and dismantling societal perceptions of intelligence. Director Dan Habib, a prominent filmmaker known for his focus on disability-related topics, uses the power of film to portray the systematic segregation, maltreatment, and unfulfilled potential of individuals with intellectual disabilities.
"One of the things I like about Intelligent Lives," says festival director and co-founder Isaac Zablocki, "is that it really gets into what our world considers to be intelligence. The film shows us how our references of intelligence and education are sometimes completely irrelevant. There are different kinds of intelligence, and they're all equally important and valid." As a unique part of the selection process, ReelAbilities lets each partner location choose which film to present. Miranda Hoffner, Assistant Director of Accessibility at Lincoln Center, says, "When screening this year's shortlist of films, Intelligent Lives stood out right away. Our team has focused on supporting teens and young adults with disabilities as they navigate their paths post-high school, and this film explores transition in such a thoughtful and honest way."
In previous years, Lincoln Center has screened the films Autistic Like Me, Enter The Faun, Time to Love, A Backstage Tale, and Perfectly Normal for Me. The upcoming screening at the Atrium, like all ReelAbilities screenings, will feature a post-performance panel, which encourages responsible discussion and reflection. Zablocki describes the post-screening discussion as "a one-up on the streaming world." Audience participation is encouraged during discussions, giving people the opportunity to connect in ways that might otherwise have been impossible.
"The discussions are my favorite part. Every year there are great surprises in the conversation, and there is so much connection between filmmakers, actors, panelists, and audience members," says Zablocki. "There are some incredible coming-out stories, too," he adds, noting that, for a broad community often marginalized by mainstream society, the chance to interact and connect in the context of ReelAbilities can be profound. One example that Zablocki remembers occurred during a panel discussion for Wretches and Jabberers, a film about two men with autism who are nonverbal. Many other people in the screening audience were also nonverbal, and iPads were passed around the room for audience members to ask questions and discuss the film, allowing people to communicate and bond in ways that, in inequitable environments, can sometimes be impossible to achieve.
"The ReelAbilities Film Festival is such a unique opportunity to bring topics of disability and identity as the artwork."
When Lincoln Center's partnership with ReelAbilities began, Zablocki's goal was to make screenings more accessible by bringing films to different locations. "Over the years, we've looked for partnerships with organizations that are like-minded in terms of accessibility, quality in the arts, and how to use the arts to bring people together. Our partnership with Lincoln Center is a beautiful example that we're really proud of," he says. The partnership is equally significant for Lincoln Center. "Every day, our team works hard to make performing arts on our campus accessible for as wide an audience as possible," says Hoffner, "but we don't often get the opportunity to move beyond audiences to share disability on our stages. The ReelAbilities Film Festival is such a unique opportunity to bring topics of disability and identity as the artwork."
Since 2007, ReelAbilities has seen growth across many aspects of accessibility, and one such development is audio description, which provides descriptive audio narration of visual content for individuals who are blind or have low vision. ReelAbilities started including audio description in 2010. Nine years later, all ReelAbilities films are audio described, setting the accessibility bar for film festivals and arts organizations across the country. In addition, ReelAbilities has seen growth in the number of submissions from the United States, which Zablocki says is of particular importance. "Usually we had to rely on foreign films because they were made with government funding, which gave foreign filmmakers access to making films that weren't necessarily about the most popular topics," he says. In the U.S., since most films are funded by studios or independent investors, profit is paramount. Though there is a large population of consumers interested in films about disability, investors and private studios have yet to identify their profitability, which makes the increase in American submissions an intriguing area of growth.
Though ReelAbilities has always focused on films that were by and about people with disabilities, certain goals have evolved. The inclusion of authentic and responsible portrayals of disability in film, for example, is a critical element of the ReelAbilities mission that has grown over time. While not all ReelAbilities films are authentic—meaning they do not all feature actors with disabilities playing characters with disabilities—the festival requires responsible portrayals.
For Zablocki, who believes the portrayal of characters with disabilities by famous actors without disabilities in mainstream films is integral to increasing widespread attention, the filmmaking process needs to shift. Writers without disabilities, for example, should be working with writers with disabilities. Inter-abled collaboration would enhance the research process and help provide films an authentic tone. Furthermore, by responsibly portraying disability, filmmakers can raise respectful awareness. Increased awareness helps the film industry inch closer to leveling the playing field for actors with disabilities, which means giving them opportunities to portray characters with and without disabilities.
In the future, Zablocki hopes to live in a world in which ReelAbilities is obsolete—one in which disability film festivals are part of the mainstream media. A disability film festival in this world would take on a new tone and mission: to celebrate disability, rather than to raise awareness. Zablocki hopes, too, to continue increasing universal access to the opportunities of connection that ReelAbilities creates. "In many ways, we've become a home for filmmakers and actors with disabilities," he says. "The community that this festival has built is a beautiful thing. When you see filmmakers with disabilities going out for a beer across the street from the festival and collaborating on new projects, I feel we've done our job best."
Rebecca Klein is a freelance writer and is also the 2018–19 Accessibility Partnerships and Programs Fellow at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.