From Intellectual Disabilities and ALS to Mental Health and Deafness, Sundance Films Showcase Variety Important Disability Topics
Park City, Utah, Jan. 24 – As Hollywood takes over Park City, Utah, many conversations are taking place about the importance of diversity and inclusion.
While stats exist, for example, for the number of films directed by one or more women (40% – 45 of the 112 feature films), directed by one or more filmmaker of color (36% – 40) and directed by one or more people who identify as LGBTQIA (13% – 15), no such statistics yet exist for people with disabilities.
However, the festival is taking steps to ensure that disability is fully included in all diversity initiatives, expanding beyond previous focuses on gender, race and sexual orientation.
Karim Ahmad, Director of Outreach & Inclusion at Sundance, has worked with several partners and organizations to further the inclusion of people with disabilities at both the festival and at events throughout the year.
“As we’ve grown our Outreach & Inclusion program over the last year, it’s been deeply important for us to include artists with disabilities in our planning,” he said. “At the Festival, we’ve made considerable advances to bring more accessibility to screening and panel venues, including an elevator at the Filmmaker Lodge and closed captioning and audio description capabilities at all screenings. In our the artist programs, we’ve included artists with disabilities as one of our core priorities for support in targeted fellowships for both emerging and mid-career creators from underrepresented communities, and we are seeing the beginnings of great impact.”
People with disabilities working both in front of and behind the camera have taken notice.
“Hollywood is beginning to wake up to the fact that people with disabilities represent a major slice of American life, and that there is tremendous creative potential, talent and market power just waiting to be tapped,” said Delbert Whetter, who is deaf and the Chief Operating Officer & Head of Business Affairs of Exodus Film Group, as well as a board member for RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. “Nowhere are the pioneers of this movement better demonstrated today than at Sundance and in independent film.”
Tatiana Lee, an actress who is a wheelchair user, added: “Sundance is a big deal in the film industry. So to be making big strides this year to include disability, in the films, talent, and panel discussions is an amazing step forward in Hollywood’s inclusion of people with disabilities. As a actor and creative in this industry it gives me great hope toward more opportunities for our community in Hollywood.”
The festival, which prides itself in showcasing the most diverse voices in independent film, will take place from January 24 – February 3 in Park City, Salt Lake City and at Sundance Mountain resort in Utah. In addition to many films promoting inclusion, a panel on disability inclusion will be held on Saturday.
Below please find a guide to films featuring disability in the plot or talent with disabilities.
Disability in the Plot
Bedlam (Director: Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, Producers: Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, Peter Miller)
While capturing never-before-seen footage at a Los Angeles County Psych ER over five years, psychiatrist / filmmaker Kenneth Rosenberg unveils disturbing realities for hundreds of thousands of homeless and our nation’s disastrous approach to caring for its psychiatric patients. Our jails and prisons have become America’s largest mental institutions. Psychiatric patients are held captive and warehoused in overcrowded jails underequipped first-responders provide the front line of care. At least half the people shot and killed by police each year have mental health problems with communities of color disproportionately impacted. Through intimate stories of patients, families, and medical providers, Bedlam immerses us in this national crisis. The story is told in part by director Kenneth Paul Rosenberg, MD, a psychiatrist, filmmaker, and brother of a person with schizophrenia. Among others, featured in the film is Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, and her brother Monte, a survivor of this very broken system.
A mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one-in-five Americans lives with some form of mental illness.
Dirty God (Director: Sacha Polak, Screenwriters: Sacha Polak, Susanne Farrell, Producers: Marleen Slot, Michael Elliott)
After a vicious acid attack leaves half her body covered in scars, Jade (Vicky Knight) must come to terms with the new life ahead of her: a life in which her young daughter refers to her as a “monster,” co-workers and strangers hurl nasty slurs her way, and physical intimacy seems to be a thing of the past. As an antidote to her rocky home life, Jade revels in South London’s pulsing, rhythmic club scene, but still can’t escape the emotional trauma that accompanies her scars. Desiring the face—and life—she once had, Jade looks into plastic surgery as a quick fix.
In her English-language debut, Dutch writer-director Sacha Polak takes a hard look at the gross discrepancy that underlies society’s perception of external beauty versus internal worthiness. This film belongs in both categories as Vicky Knight is an actual burn survivor.
Imaginary Order (Director and screenwriter: Debra Eisenstadt, Producers: Debra Eisenstadt, Cosmos Kiindarius)
For Cathy, an obsessive-compulsive suburban mom, life as she’s always known it seems to be slipping away. Her sense of significance is crumbling as she worries that her husband is having an affair and her 13-year-old daughter is becoming estranged. Desperate to regain some semblance of order, Cathy retreats to her sister’s home, where she cat sits, compulsively cleans and spies on a neighboring family. One by one, these bizarre neighbors—mom, dad, and teenage son—lure Cathy into their lives and ignite her rebellion. Yet when Cathy becomes the object of the teenage son’s obsession, he threatens to unravel everything—from her precarious marriage to her daughter’s innocence to her own wavering sanity.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder that affects 3.3 million people. According to National Institute of Mental Health, OCD is characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce anxiety (obsessions), repetitive behaviors that are engaged in to reduce anxiety (compulsions) or a combination of both. People with OCD are unable to control their anxiety-producing thoughts and their need to engage in ritualized behaviors. Although OCD symptoms typically develop during teen years or early adulthood, research shows that at least one-third of adult cases began during childhood. Actress Jessica Alba and hosts Marc Summers and Howie Mandel have OCD.
Love, Antosha (Director: Garret Price, Producers: Adam Gibbs, Drake Doremus)
Prolific young actor Anton Yelchin was wise beyond his years and influenced everyone around him to strive for more. Love, Antosha tells the story of Yelchin’s creative persistence. His devoted Russian parents nurtured his love of acting, exposing him to works of the masters. Filming himself became a tool for his transformation; reflecting on his own performance, he pushed himself to find depth in every role. Often the youngest actor on set, Yelchin’s intense focus inspired many actors around him—Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pine, and John Cho share revealing insights into his character. Though he kept it a secret, Yelchin lived with cystic fibrosis.
The Magic Life of V (Director: Tonislav Hristov, Screenwriters: Tonislav Hristov, Kaarle Aho, Producers: Kaarle Aho, Kai Nordberg)
Haunted by childhood traumas, Veera is trying to become more independent through live action roleplaying. As she guides herself and her brother, who has an intellectual disability after becoming sick as a toddler causing permanent brain damage, through worlds of multiple roles and identities, witches and wizards, she finds the courage to face the demons of her own past and her abusive father’s legacy.
An intellectual disability is a disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. This disability originates before the age of 18. Studies show that somewhere between one and three percent of Americans have an intellectual disability.
Mike Wallace Is Here (Director: Avi Belkin, Producers: Rafael Marmor, John Battsek, Peggy Drexler, Avi Belkin, Christopher Leggett)
For more than half a century, 60 Minutes’ fearsome newsman Mike Wallace went head-to-head with the world’s most influential figures. Relying exclusively on archival footage, the film interrogates the interrogator, tracking Mike’s storied career and troubled personal life while unpacking how broadcast journalism evolved to today’s precarious tipping point.
Mike Wallace had clinical depression, a serious mental illness that negatively impacts how a person feels, thinks and behaves around others. Feelings of sadness and a loss of interest are the most obvious symptoms of depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association. If not treated appropriately, emotional and physical problems can occur as a result of depression. Symptoms of depression can range from mild to severe. Depression can come into a person’s life at any time, but the most common times are the late teens or mid 20’s. The death of a loved one, loss of a job or end of a relationship can result in severe depression. Seven percent of the population has had at least one depressive episode, which are 16 million adults in total. Depression does not discriminate by racial background or socioeconomic status.
Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements (Director: Irene Taylor Brodsky, Producers: Irene Taylor Brodsky, Tahria Sheather)
This film belongs in both categories – a film about deafness starting individuals who are deaf. A deeply personal portrait of three lives, Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements chronicles the discoveries that lie beyond loss: a deaf boy growing up, his deaf grandfather growing old, and Beethoven the year he was blindsided by deafness and wrote his iconic sonata.
Deafness is defined as a hearing loss that prevents a person from understanding speech through the ear. People who are hard of hearing have a more mild or moderate hearing loss that may or may not be corrected with amplification. A person who is deaf may also have speech difficulties. A 2011 study led by Johns Hopkins researchers which used the World Health Organization’s definition for hearing loss (i.e. the inability to hear sounds of 25 decibels or less in the speech frequencies) found that nearly a fifth of all Americans, or about 30 million people, have hearing loss in both ears, and that 48 million Americans have hearing loss in at least one ear.
The Mustang (Director: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Screenwriters: Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre, Mona Fastvold, Brock Norman Brock, Producer: Alain Goldman)
Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a tightly wound convict fresh out of solitary confinement at a maximum-security prison in the Nevada desert. Still wary of human contact, Roman enrolls in a tough but rewarding rehabilitation program learning to train wild mustangs. Under the tutelage of grizzled trainer Myles (Bruce Dern), he takes charge of an ornery horse in the hopes of preparing it for an annual auction. With the wild animal acting as a mirror for his own raging emotions, Roman must learn to tame not only the mustang but also the beast within.
Quarter Life Poetry (Director: Arturo Perez Jr., Producers: Samantha Jayne, Arturo Perez Jr., Nina Soriano, Jacob Perlin, Alex D. Sanchez)
Based on the Instagram account and book of the same name by Samantha Jayne, the multiple vignettes of this outstanding new series feature poems relevant to all but aimed toward the young, broke and hangry. Samantha Jayne, who has anxiety in real life, makes having anxiety relatable, sending a message to women with anxiety that they are not alone.
Anxiety is made up of a number of disorders that cause fear as well as severe worrying to the point where it begins to take over a person’s life, according to NAMI. It is classified as the most common health disorder in the U.S. Although general anxiety is classified as normal, anxiety disorders are more difficult to cope with. Eighteen percent of adults in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder. Eight percent of children experience anxiety disorders as well.
Where’s My Roy Cohn? (Director: Matt Tyrnauer, Producers: Matt Tyrnauer , Corey Reeser, Marie Brenner, Andrea Lewis)
Roy Cohn personified the dark arts of American politics, turning empty vessels into dangerous demagogues – from Joseph McCarthy to his final project, Donald J. Trump. This thriller-like exposé contextualizes Cohn as a modern Machiavelli, tracing his rise to national prominence—first as prosecutor of the Rosenbergs, then as handmaiden to Joseph McCarthy. After these twin disgraces, Cohn re-emerges as a New York power broker, mafia consigliere, white-collar criminal, and, eventually, the mentor of Trump.
Cohn died from complications with AIDS, which is considered a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. According to the World Health Organization, since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 35 million people have died of HIV. Globally, 36.9 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2017.
The Witch Hunters (Director: Rasko Miljkovic, Producers: Jovana Karaulic, Ognen Antov, Snezana Penev)
Ten-year-old Jovan (Mihajlo Milavic) has cerebral palsy, and his parents do everything in their power to make his life as normal as possible. His days are filled with school, homework, physical therapy, and an imaginary world where he’s known as the superhero Shade. His carefully constructed world is disrupted when a new student, Milica (Silma Mahmuti), becomes his new deskmate. As their friendship deepens, Milica opens up to Jovan and tells him about her parents’ impending divorce. She determines that her father’s new lover is a witch who has cast a coercive love spell on her father. With the help of meticulous research, Jovan and Milica create a daring plan to save her father.
Cerebral Palsy (CP) is a nonprogressive group of disorders that affects an individual’s muscle tone and movement, caused by brain damage before, during birth or within the first few years of a child’s life. People who have cerebral palsy can have mild to severe issues with balance, muscle and motor control, but how cerebral palsy affects each person is very individual. This can include walking (possibly requiring the use of a wheelchair), balance, fine motor and gross motor skills and speech (ranging from very mild to severe). Some people who have cerebral palsy may require accommodations (for example, a ramp) while others may not. According to cerebralpalsy.org, about 746,000 children and adults currently have CP.
Talent with Disabilities
When successful actors disclose an invisible disability, such as a learning disability or mental health differences, they help normalize this disability in both the entertainment world and for the general public who consume their films and television shows. By featuring actors with visible disabilities (Give Me Liberty discussed below, as well as Dirty God, Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements and Quarter Life Poetry, which were covered above), the producers are sharing a clear message of inclusion and authenticity.
Below are films that do not necessarily have disability in the plot but feature actors with disabilities. In several of these instances, actors with disabilities are playing roles that have nothing to do with their disability.
Big Time Adolescence (Director and screenwriter: Jason Orley, Producers: Jeremy Garelick, Mickey Liddell, Pete Shiliamon, Mason Novick, Will Phelps)
Working from his own sharp script, first-time director Jason Orley has created an all-too-real look at what it’s like to be a teenager these days. Mo, a suburban teenager, comes of age under the destructive guidance of his best friend Zeke, a charismatic college dropout.
Star Pete Davidson, who plays Zeke, has several disabilities and chronic health conditions. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a teenager and receives intravenous treatment. He uses medical marijuana as a pain reliever. Davidson also has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and he has been undergoing treatment. Recently, he shared a candid Instagram post about being suicidal before deleting his entire account, sparking a wellness check, who was found safe. He also had suicidal thoughts as a child after being profoundly affected by the loss of his father, a firefighter who died in service during the 9/11 attacks.
Give Me Liberty (Director: Kirill Mikhanovsky, Screenwriters: Alice Austen, Kirill Mikhanovsky, Producers: Alice Austen, George Rush, Walter S. Hall, Michael Manasseri, Sergey Shtern, Val Abel)
Vic, a hapless young Russian American, drives a medical transport in Milwaukee. Already late on a day when street protests break out, Vic reluctantly agrees to ferry his grandfather and a dozen elderly Russians to a funeral, but they’re distressed when he stops first in a predominantly African American neighborhood to pick up Tracy, a young black woman with ALS. This “day in the life” story is about marginalized characters encountering literal and figurative roadblocks.
Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, who plays Tracy, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) when she was 14 years old. She uses a motorized wheelchair for her primary ambulate needs. She received her BA Degree in TV production and currently is pursuing her passion of video editing.
The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Director: Joe Talbot, Screenwriters: Joe Talbot, Rob Richert, Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Christina Oh, Khaliah Neal, Joe Talbot)
Jimmie Fails dreams of reclaiming the Victorian home his grandfather built in the heart of San Francisco. Joined on his quest by his best friend Mont, Jimmie searches for belonging in a rapidly changing city that seems to have left them behind.
Actor Danny Glover, who plays the grandfather, had Epilepsy as a child, but has not had a seizure since he was 35. Epilepsy is a chronic neurological and developmental disorder that affects one in 26 people in their lifetime and 48 in 100,000 people each year. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder. It is characterized by “recurrent, unprovoked seizures.”
Late Night (Director: Nisha Ganatra, Screenwriter: Mindy Kaling, Producers: Ben Browning, Howard Klein, Jillian Apfelbaum, Mindy Kaling)
Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson) is a pioneer and legendary host on the late-night talk-show circuit. When she’s accused of being a “woman who hates women,” she puts affirmative action on the to-do list, and—presto!—Molly (Mindy Kaling) is hired as the one woman in Katherine’s all-male writers’ room. But Molly might be too little too late, as the formidable Katherine also faces the reality of low ratings and a network that wants to replace her. Molly, wanting to prove she’s not simply a diversity hire who’s disrupting the comfort of the brotherhood, is determined to help Katherine by revitalizing her show and career—and possibly effect even bigger change at the same time.
Emma Thompson has had depression, a serious mental illness that negatively impacts how a person feels, thinks and behaves around others. Feelings of sadness and a loss of interest are the most obvious symptoms of depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association. If not treated appropriately, emotional and physical problems can occur as a result of depression. Symptoms of depression can range from mild to severe. Depression can come into a person’s life at any time, but the most common times are the late teens or mid 20’s. The death of a loved one, loss of a job or end of a relationship can result in severe depression. Seven percent of the population has had at least one depressive episode, which are 16 million adults in total. Depression does not discriminate by racial background or socioeconomic status.
The Report (Director and screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns, Producers: Steven Soderbergh, Jennifer Fox, Scott Z. Burns, Danny Gabai, Eddy Moretti)
The story of Daniel Jones, lead investigator for the US Senate’s sweeping study into the CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program, which was found to be brutal, immoral and ineffective. With the truth at stake, Jones battled tirelessly to make public what many in power sought to keep hidden.
Actor Jon Hamm has been treated for alcoholism. “An alcoholic is a person with a disability and is protected by the ADA if s/he is qualified to perform the essential functions of the job. An employer may be required to provide an accommodation to an alcoholic,” states the Americans with Disabilities Act. 9.8 million men and 5.3 million women in the United States alone have an alcohol use disorder.
Velvet Buzzsaw (Director and screenwriter: Dan Gilroy, Producer: Jennifer Fox)
A thriller set in the contemporary art world scene of Los Angeles, where big money artists and mega-collectors pay a high price when art collides with commerce.
Actress Rene Russo has bipolar disorder, a brain disorder that tends to cause unusual shifts in mood, energy and day-to-day activities. Changes in mood are more evident for those who possess bipolar disorder. The signs and symptoms of bipolar disorder often consist of altered sleep patterns, unusual behaviors and changing activity levels. Many people who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder have another illness such as anxiety disorder or substance abuse. Family genes and brain structure contribute to the disorder. Two and half percent of the U.S. population has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Eighty-three percent of cases are classified as severe. According to the NAMI, an estimated 10 million people live with bipolar disorder.
Wounds (Director and Screenwriter: Babak Anvari, Producers: Lucan Toh, Christopher Kopp)
Will (Armie Hammer) is a bartender in New Orleans. He has a great job, great friends, and a girlfriend, Carrie (Dakota Johnson), who loves him. He skates across life’s surface, ignoring complications and concentrating on enjoying the moment. One night at the bar, a violent brawl breaks out, which injures one of his regular customers and causes some college kids to leave behind a cell phone in their haste. Will begins receiving disturbing texts and calls from the stranger’s phone. While Will hopes to not get involved, Carrie gets lost down a rabbit hole investigating this strange malevolence. They’ve discovered something unspeakable, and it’s crawling slowly into the light.
Dakota Johnson has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a brain disorder that is characterized by an individual’s consistent inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. While everyone experiences these symptoms at one point or another, what classifies these behaviors under ADHD is when it begins to affect normal day-to-day functioning and/or development. ADHD is typically diagnosed in children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 6.4 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD in the United States – 11 percent of children ages four to 17. ADHD is not a learning disability. However, ADHD can interfere with learning. According to understood.org, experts estimate that one-third to one-half of individuals with a learning disability also have ADHD.
Talent with Dyslexia
Several actors featured in films in prominent roles in this year’s Sundance have talked about their experience with dyslexia. The most common disability among children in the United States is a learning disability, which is a neurologically based condition that may manifest itself as difficulty learning and using skills in reading (called dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia), mathematics (dyscalculia) and other cognitive processes due to differences in how the brain processes information. A learning disability is not an intellectual disability. Individuals with learning disabilities have average or above average intelligence, and the term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of another cause, such as intellectual disabilities or lack of educational opportunity. Dyslexia is a learning disability that likely affects more than 40 million Americans, but only two million know they have it.
Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (Director: Joe Berlinger, Screenwriter: Michael Werwie, Producers: Michael Costigan, Nicolas Chartier, Ara Keshishian, Michael Simkin)
A chronicle of the crimes of Ted Bundy from the perspective of Liz, his longtime girlfriend, who refused to believe the truth about him for years. Kaya Scodelario, who plays Carole Anne Boone, has dyslexia.
Official Secrets (Director: Gavin Hood, Screenwriters: Sara Bernstein, Gregory Bernstein, Gavin Hood, Producers: Ged Doherty, Elizabeth Fowler, Melissa Shiyu Zuo)
Based on the book The Spy Who Tried to Stop a War, Official Secrets tells the true story of British secret-service officer Katharine Gun (Keira Knightley), who during the immediate run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq leaked a top-secret National Security Agency memo. The memo—which exposed an illegal U.S.-U.K. spying operation against members of the United Nations Security Council—proposed blackmailing smaller, undecided member states into voting for war. Keira Knightley has dyslexia. Costar Matt Smith has Spondylosis, a general term for age-related wear and tear of the spinal disks.
To The Stars (Director: Martha Stephens, Screenwriter: Shannon Bradley-Colleary, Producers: Kristin Mann, Laura D. Smith, Erik Rommesmo)
Under small town scrutiny, a withdrawn farmer’s daughter forges an intimate friendship with a worldly but reckless new girl in 1960s Oklahoma. Lead actress Malin Akerman has dyslexia.
Additional research provided by Eric Ascher, Emma Content and Virginia Campbell.