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Stills from Come as You Are and Peanut Butter Falcon. Text: Disability On Screen at SXSW 2019 (SXSW 2019 is the logo)

SXSW Highlights Different Disabilities on Screen

Austin, Texas, April 17 – This year’s 26th annual SXSW (South By Southwest) included films that contain stories and themes about disabilities in documentary and in fiction.

“Including characters with a visible disability in a film does not happen by accident and neither does a film festival like SXSW ensuring that films with disability themes are given this important platform to launch,” said Lauren Appelbaum, who leads RespectAbility’s Hollywood Inclusion efforts as the organization’s vice president, communications. “What we see on screen influences how we act in real life. Thus, when filmmakers make the decision to include individuals with visible disabilities in positive and accurate portrayals, they can help to remove the stigmas that currently exist about interacting with individuals with disabilities.”

Fictional Stories: Spotlight on The Peanut Butter Falcon and Come As You Are

One of the highlights of SXSW is the Shia LaBoeuf-led The Peanut Butter Falcon, which stars a character and actor with Down syndrome. Peanut Butter Falcon introduces newcomer Zack Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome. A modern take of Huckleberry Finn, Falcon tells the story of Zac, who escapes from a living care facility to pursue his dream of being a wrestler. On his journey to a wrestling school, Zac joins Tyler (LaBouef), an alcoholic fisherman and Eleanor (Dakota Johnson), a compassionate nurse, who help him achieve his goal.

Peanut Butter Falcon received positive reviews and Gottsagen received a standing ovation for his performance. Directors & writers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz met Gottsagen at Zeno Mountain Farm – a disability media company and recreational camp – and wrote the story around him.

“We wanted to create the most authentic experience we could,” Nilson said. “And the film’s wrestling is an allegory for acting, because there aren’t many opportunities for people with Downs to act, nor is there that opportunity in pro wrestling.” Gottsagen will be seen with RespectAbility Communications Fellow and actress Emily Kranking in Zeno Mountain Farm’s musical film The Homecoming later this year.

Another disability-heavy feature film is Come As You Are, which is based on the 2011 Belgian film Hasta La Vista. Risqué and risky, Come As You Are is also a road trip story that also is the true story of Asta Philpot (who makes a cameo). Instead of a raft in the ocean, the male characters with disabilities (Grant Rosenmeyer, Hayden Szeto and Ravi Patel) are cramped in a tiny van on their way to an accessible brothel in Montreal. It is all smooth sailing, in despite of a reluctant nurse/driver (Academy Award nominee Gabourey Sidibe) – who soon realizes the plan – and a group of angry parents.

The movie also received positive reviews, praising on the subject matter and diversity of races represented by the actors (Asian-American and African-American), with positive disability themes. “As a society, we tend to de-sexualize certain groups (Asian American men being one of those groups), and this was a chance to address that head on,” said director Richard Wong. “My hope is that people walk away from the film feeling that our characters are real people and, though their obstacles in their own lives may vary greatly, they can relate to the struggles our characters have in the film.”

However, while the characters have disabilities including blindness and mobile disabilities, Rosenmeyer, Szeto and do not have these disabilities in real life. Because the movie is heavily lifted on themes of disability, this would have been a perfect opportunity to showcase actors with disabilities.

Documenting Disabilities

Three of SXSW Film Festival’s documentaries, Vision Portraits, Any One of Us and In the Dark, document real people with disabilities and their unique lives.

Vision Portraits focuses on how artists create beautiful work with their blindness. Directed, filmed and wrote by blind filmmaker Rodney Evans, Evans follows fellow blind/low vision colleagues John Dugdale (photographer), Kayla Hamilton (dancer) and Ryan Knighton (writer) on their artistic achievements.

“The film is a personal artistic, psychological and scientific journey about the ways that blind and visually impaired artists create art,” said Evans. “How does someone continue to create in spite of severe obstacles? This was the main question I was asking myself in the making of the film and engaging with each artist in it.”

Evans wanted to have Vision Portraits to be as stylized as possible, so viewers can see the world from the eyes of the artists. “So, I could use mattes, film roll outs, flares and other subjective cinematic techniques to put the viewer in the visual perspective of the blind and low vision artists,” explains Evans. “It was also important for me that the audience understand that there are gradations between being fully blind and fully sighted and many people live in that in between space. Hopefully the film expands what we think of as ‘vision’ beyond just the ocular to include a combination of the processes involving brain, the heart, the eyes and the imagination.”

Any One of Us stays true to its title as it tells the viewers that anyone can become physically disabled in a second. Mountain biker Paul Basagoitia is a living example after a bike accident left him with a spinal cord injury (SCI) that paralyzed him. However, instead of portraying Basagoitia in a victim stereotype (which often is done), Any One of Us features how Basagoitia continued to life his life with SCI. “Everybody thinks there’s no hope. I truly believe there is,” Basagoitia says to the camera during the film.

Any One of Us is a balance of Basagoitia’s everyday life and his physical/self-therapy sessions. Basagoitia uses canes and back braces to get around, but he still practices his balance and walking independently. Even though Basagoitia films a majority of the movie, the rest is directed, produced and filmed by Fernando Villena.

“I’m inspired by stories of healing and growth and this film epitomizes that type of story,” said Villena. “When I first saw the months of footage that Paul had captured, it was clear that the same strength that made him a force on a bike, would drive him to fight for every bit of recovery. I feel honored to help Paul tell his powerful story.”

Finally, In the Dark is a controversial documentary that highlights dyslexia, a learning disability that likely affects more than 40 million Americans, but only two million know they have it. Dyslexia is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. Secondary consequences may include problems in reading comprehension and reduced reading experience that can impede growth of vocabulary and background knowledge. It is a common learning disability among children, although adolescents and adults living with dyslexia often exhibit symptoms as well.

The film is about neuroscientist Phyllis Books, who is comparable to a shaman as she is known to “heal” dyslexia. Books works with two little girls and a young woman through hypnosis and feedback to reverse their dyslexia. Even though the feature shows how the girls live with dyslexia, dyslexia is portrayed in a negative light. The woman Jen, 26, cries in frustration at one point and one of the two girls laments, “I’m not like the other kids. I don’t fit in.” Once the other girl is “cured,” she dances, “I’m unstoppable! I can read!” The first girl adds, “I am free!” after her healing.

Looking to the Future

According to a recent report by The Media, Diversity, & Social Change (MDSC) Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only 2.5 percent of all speaking or named characters in the 100 most popular films of 2017 were shown to have a disability. Nearly 70 percent of characters with disabilities were male while 30.4 percent were female. Forty-one films in 2017 did not feature one speaking character with a disability. A total of 78 movies did not include one female character with a disability. Two films featured characters with disabilities in proportion to the U.S. population (18.7 percent).

Nearly three-quarters of characters with disabilities were white, while 27 percent were people of color. Only one character shown with a disability was LGBT. Only the percentage of female characters with a disability has increased meaningfully since 2015. Films like Come As You Are that include characters who are Asian-American and African-American with disabilities definitely help with this trend. 

“Hollywood has to catch up with its audience,” Appelbaum added. “Diversity must really mean diversity – and that includes the one-in-five Americans who has a disability. Disability – and the diversity within disability – needs to be a part of every conversation on diversity, inclusion and equity.”

Meet the Author

Emily Kranking
Emily Kranking

Emily Kranking has learned firsthand how people with disabilities are treated in entertainment and society. Working at RespectAbility mixes her love of service with strategic communications to help people with disabilities.

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