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Ensuring Authenticity and Accessibility at 2021 Sundance Film Festival

Los Angeles, CA, Jan. 28 – With one-in-five people having a disability in the U.S. today, the lack of representation – just 2.3 percent of characters in the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 and 8 percent in family films – means that millions of people are unable to see themselves reflected in media.

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival (January 28 – February 3) will provide an opportunity for audiences with various disabilities to see themselves represented – all from the comfort of their homes through the virtual festival site. This year, several films feature disability in the plot, including CODAAmy Tan4 Feet HighForever and Wiggle Room, among others.

Ensuring an Accessible Festival

The 2021 Sundance Film Festival being virtual this year also brings a desire to be accessible to all. According to Sundance, all films will be available with closed captioning or subtitles, which allows viewers who are deaf or Hard of Hearing to view films. However, just two feature films will include audio description (AD) for blind and low-vision viewers – Land (premieres Jan. 31, 3:00 pm PT) and On the Count of Three, a dark comedy on the topic of suicide (premieres Jan. 29, 6:00 pm PT).  Per the Sundance Institute’s Accessibility Office, “When viewing a film with AD, a popup with the option to select an AD version will appear when you click to watch the film.”

Text: "Join RespectAbility at 2021 Sundance Film Festival. The Accessibility and Inclusion Lab. January 29 - February 1. Live on Zoom." Logo for RespectAbility. List of five session titles. Icons for closed captioning and ASL.All official talks and events will include live captioning, as will some partner events in the Festival Village and on virtual Main Street. The disability advocacy organization RespectAbility will be hosting The Accessibility and Inclusion Lab Conversation Series – a virtual lineup of Sundance events taking place on a digital Main Street – with the aim of giving filmmakers the tools they need to be more inclusive and accessible – both for disabled crew members and for audiences watching the films. Each of RespectAbility’s five events will include live captions as well as ASL interpreters.

Below please find a guide to several of the films featuring disability in the plot or talent with disabilities.

Feature: CODA (Writer/Director: Siân Heder) – Premieres January 28, 5:00 pm PT

Eugenio Derbez appears in CODA by Siân Heder, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Mark Hill.

This film is about a hearing child in a deaf family who finds herself torn between pursuing her love of music and her family’s reliance on her to be their connection to the outside world.

Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of a deaf family. At 17, she works mornings before school to help her parents (Marlee Matlin and Troy Kotsur) and brother (Daniel Durant) keep their Gloucester fishing business afloat. But in joining her high school’s choir club, Ruby finds herself drawn to both her duet partner (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) and her latent passion for singing. Her enthusiastic, tough-love choirmaster (Eugenio Derbez) hears something special and encourages Ruby to consider music school and a future beyond fishing, leaving her torn between obligation to family and pursuit of her dream.

In addition to deafness being a central part of the plot, several deaf actors are featured in the film including Marlee Matlin, Tony Kotsur and Daniel Durant.

Feature: Ailey (Director: Jamila Wignot) – Premieres January 30, 9:00 am PT

Based on the life of Alvin Ailey, an African American dancer, director, choreographer and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT). Later on in life he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and died of an AIDS-related illness in 1989.

Feature: Ma Belle, My Beauty (Director: Mario Hill) – Premieres January 30, 3:00 pm PT

Newlywed musicians Bertie and Fred are adjusting to their new life in the beautiful countryside of France. It’s an easy transition for Fred, the son of French and Spanish parents, but New Orleans native Bertie grapples with a nagging depression that is affecting her singing. Lane—the quirky ex who disappeared from their three-way relationship years ago—suddenly shows up for a surprise visit, bringing new energy and baggage of her own. NOTE: Contains sexual content and nudity. May not be suitable for all audiences.

Feature: Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir (Director: James Redford) – Premieres February 2, 3:00 pm PT

Literary titan Amy Tan analyzes her life, her work, and her family—in the present and past tense—in this longitudinal biopic directed by James Redford. As Tan traces her childhood through The Joy Luck Club and her later compositions, she dissects issues of representation, multigenerational trauma, and the stigma and challenge of illness. Forcefully matrilineal in focus, this film moves through generations of Tan’s family, revealing listening as the heart of Tan’s creative practice and contextualizing the patience with which Tan broke through barriers and waited on the other side, welcoming the world to join her.

Amy Tan, the subject of the film, has Lyme Disease. The late director James Redford was born seven weeks premature and was diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis as a teenager.

Series: 4 Feet High (Directors: María Belén Poncio and Rosario Perazolo Masjoan) – Available On-Demand with a pass beginning January 28, 7:00 am PT

Two people talk at night, including a woman who is using a wheelchair, in a still from 4 Feet High by María Belén Poncio and Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, an official selection of the Indie Series Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Natalia Roca.

4 FEET HIGH is the FIRST cross-platform project to premiere at Sundance via VR and flat episodes. This beautiful mix of live-action and animation tells the story of Juana, a spunky 17-year-old in a wheelchair who aims to explore her sexuality but is ashamed of her body. Trying to find her place in a new school, she endures failure, friendship, fear, and politics until she builds her sense of pride. Upon viewing these six remarkable episodes, head over to New Frontier to experience Juana’s unique perspective on life in four additional 360-degree episodes.

Director Rosario Perazolo Masjoan is a director, writer and disability rights activist. She has participated in international congresses, including the UN Human Rights congress in Istanbul, on behalf of Argentina. With a critical stance on the emotional and inspirational model, Masjoan advocates for the active participation of people with disabilities, over and above the rehabilitative and pedagogical medical model.

Marisol Agostina Irigoyen, who plays Juana, the protagonist of this series, uses a wheelchair.

Short: Forever (Director: Mitch McGlocklin) – Available On-Demand with a pass beginning January 28, 7:00 am PT

A life insurance company uses an artificial-intelligence algorithm to determine the risk of a new applicant. The subsequent denial sparks a period of introspection for the individual in question.

This film deals with pre-existing conditions and how certain services discriminate against people with disabilities. Director and screenwriter Mitch McGlocklin says the short was inspired by his own experiences with algorithms that denied him life insurance.

Short: Wiggle Room (Directors: Sam Guest and Julia Baylis) – Available On-Demand with a pass beginning January 28, 7:00 am PT

Deanna Gibson appears in Wiggle Room by Sam Guest and Julia Baylis, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Determined to save her wheelchair ramp from repossession, Daisy confronts the shady insurance agent who owes her money.

Inspired by the events of the filmmakers’ friend, this film features Deanna Gibson, who uses a wheelchair herself, as the lead.

A Focus on Education

Two films, Homeroom (premiering January 29, 9:00 am PT) and Try Harder! (premiering January 30, 12:00 pm PT), both focus on education and related issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made educational opportunities for students with disabilities even more difficult.

Homeroom follows the lives of Oakland High School’s class of 2020, which confronts an unprecedented year. Anxiety over test scores and college applications gives way to uncertainty springing from a rapidly developing pandemic. Efforts to eliminate the school district’s police force unfold against the backdrop of growing nationwide demands for systemic change. Emmy Award–winning director/cinematographer Peter Nicks (winner of the Directing Award: U.S. Documentary at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival) captures the resilient and defiant energy of this senior class in his final chapter in a trilogy of films examining the relationship between health care, criminal justice, and education in Oakland.

Homeroom immerses us in the lives of students trying to make the most of their final year in high school amidst a procession of blows. Nicks’s trusted, attentive camera and overall vérité approach trace these emotional journeys in real time, while self-recorded social media videos root us in the students’ authentic perspectives. The result is a revealing, outspoken coming-of-age story that taps into the collective experience of a nation in transition calling out for change.

In Try Harder, at Lowell High School, the top public high school in San Francisco, the seniors are stressed out. As they prepare for the emotionally draining college application process, students are keenly aware of the intense competition for the few open spots in their dream colleges. They scrutinize how every element of their application, from their classes to their extracurricular activities to their racial identities, might be read by admission officers. At Lowell—where cool kids are nerds, nearly everyone has an amazing talent, and the majority of the student body is Asian American—the things that usually make a person stand out can feel not good enough, even commonplace.

With humor and heart, director Debbie Lum takes us to the reality of the American college application process and the intersection of class, race, and educational opportunity as experienced by high school seniors living through it. Try Harder! is a portrait of young adults in the most diverse American generation ever as they navigate a quintessential rite of passage and make it their own.

Talent with Disabilities

When successful actors and producers disclose a nonvisible disability, such as a learning disability or mental health condition, they help normalize these disabilities in both the entertainment world and for the general public who consume their films and television shows. In some cases, actors with disabilities appear in films that do not necessarily have disability in the plot. In several of these instances, actors with disabilities are playing roles that have nothing to do with their disability.

  • John and the Hole (US drama) features an actor with cancer, Michael C. Hall.
  • Passing (US drama) includes a producer with ptosis, Forest Whitaker.
  • Together Together (US drama) features an actor with congenital heart defect, Ed Helms.
  • Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided To Go For It (US documentary) features several interview subjects who have disabilities including Morgan Freeman, who has fibromyalgia, and Whoopi Goldberg, who has dyslexia. Producer Lin Manuel Miranda has been public about a medical condition, vestibular neuronitis.
  • Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street (Premieres) features Joan Ganz-Cooney, who had breast cancer.
  • The World to Come (Spotlight) features an actor with alcoholism, Casey Affleck.
  • These Days (Series) features Amy Brenneman, an actress with ulcerative colitis, a condition of the colon where inflammation and ulcers develop in the intestinal lining.

Additional research provided by Tyler Hoog and Roque Renteria.

Meet the Author

Lauren Appelbaum

Lauren Appelbaum is the VP, Communications and Entertainment & News Media, of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities so all people with disabilities can fully participate in every aspect of community. As an individual with an acquired nonvisible disability – Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy – she works at the intersection of disability, employment, Hollywood and politics. She regularly conducts trainings on the why and how to be more inclusive and accessible for entertainment executives throughout the industry. Appelbaum partners with studios, production companies and writers’ rooms to create equitable and accessible opportunities to increase the number of people with lived disability experience throughout the overall story-telling process. These initiatives increase diverse and authentic representation of disabled people on screen, leading to systemic change in how society views and values people with disabilities. She has consulted on more than 100 TV episodes and films with A&E, Bunim-Murray Productions, NBCUniversal, Netflix, ViacomCBS, and The Walt Disney Company, among others. She represents RespectAbility on the CAA Full Story Initiative Advisory Council, Disney+ Content Advisory Council, MTV Entertainment Group Culture Code and Sundance Institute’s Allied Organization Initiative. She is the author of The Hollywood Disability Inclusion Toolkit and the creator of an innovative Lab Program for entertainment professionals with disabilities working in development, production and post-production. She is a recipient of the 2020 Roddenberry Foundation Impact Award for this Lab. To reach her, email [email protected]

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