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Sundance’s The Accessibility of Filmmaking Panel Gives You Perspective

Rhode Island, Feb. 9 – Picture walking on a film set… before COVID. There are tons of people walking around: Production Assistants on headsets, the director under the tent with assistant directors and camera operators, and actors eating crafty. As you continue walking, you will not only have to dodge all of these people but dodge the just as animated technical elements of cameras, tape, wires, and lights that are often moved and carried. It’s hard. You have to be on your toes, looking before you move. But what if you use a wheelchair, if you have low vision, if you’re Deaf, if you’re easily overwhelmed by all this activity, or if you have any type of disability at all? Being on a film set and making films now can seem nearly impossible. The filmmaking world doesn’t always think about anyone who might need accommodations or anyone with disabilities being on set, let alone making a film. Let’s change that.

RespectAbility’s virtual panel, “The Accessibility of Filmmaking,” at the Sundance Film Festival 2021 (in collaboration with Film Independent), discussed the entire inclusive filmmaking process from hiring and casting disabled talent to making film sets accessible and to ensuring that the film itself is accessible for viewers. It was a “Disability in Filmmaking 101.”  The panel included both filmmakers with disabilities and those who worked with disabled people on their films. The panel was moderated by Tatiana Lee, the Hollywood Inclusion Associate at RespectAbility, an award-winning actress and an international model.

Panelist Jevon Whetter, Deaf writer and director of feature film Flash Before the Bang, featured at Film Independent’s 2018 Producing Lab Program, started the panel by asking a fun question: “Do you want a real Rolex watch or a fake?” The answer relates to authenticity. Most people want a real Rolex. All disabled people want real disabled representation onscreen and behind the scenes. To do this, it’s important to have support within the filmmaking community. This support takes reaching out to others and building a bridge to break down barriers. The bridge can include things such as captions or audio descriptions. Deaf people or anyone with disabilities need to have the opportunity to share their stories, their culture, and for others to see it.

Shireen Alihaji, the co-founder of Blue Veil Films, talked about the importance of reimagining space and the tradition of storytelling transcending her own displacement as a Muslim disabled woman of color. Alihaji said, “storytelling can be a tool of resistance, and it only requires that one reflects and remembers.” She wants to collaborate with more people and keep the communities engaged and support each other.

Nasreen Alkhateeb was the lead cinematographer for Vice President Kamala Harris’ successful campaign. As a person with an acquired physical disability, Alkhateeb talked about how she made sure she had all the tools and accommodations necessary to keep up with the momentum of sometimes being in three states in one day. As a “black and Iraqi woman who grew up in America, my life and experiences inform how I see the world and on what topics I choose to focus,” she said. She might choose to focus her lens on something that someone else might not choose. Alkhateeb noted that it’s important to consider who is behind the camera and what experiences that person brings that inform the story onscreen.

Leah Romond is an attorney and a producer of Best Summer Ever, a feature-length original musical. The film was completely integrated with a cast and crew of people with and without disabilities. Everyone was a member of Zeno Mountain Farm, a nonprofit in Vermont that hosts camps and retreats for people with disabilities, veterans, traumatic brain injuries, cancer, chronic illness, and people in recovery. Before the pandemic, the film was slated to start its festival run at South By Southwest (SXSW) 2020 World Premier and was awarded the SXSW Final Draft Screenwriters Award. Romond talked about her brain injury in 2012 that led to a cognitive and physical disability. During filming, Romond was still trying to figure out where to fit in as an active member of society. She described life after her injury as living 30-something years with one brain and now having a different brain plopped into her head. During the making of the film, Romond worked with producer Andrew Pilkington who supported her throughout the process. He encouraged her and helped her with executive functioning. Romond noted how she is always surprised when people underestimate Pilkington just because he has cerebral palsy. She was able to be a producer of the film because of him. During the entire filmmaking process, everyone worked together with their strengths.

The conversation turned to producer Andrew Pilkington. In addition to Best Summer Ever, Pilkington has produced four feature films. He talked about stigmas in the film industry and breaking them. As someone with a disability, he says when people “hear my voice, they assume what I’m able to do. People don’t expect someone like me to be in charge of a million-dollar film. I prove them wrong. The challenge is to overcome people’s misconceptions.”

Joey Travolta is the founder of Inclusion Films, a program for individuals with developmental disabilities that are partnered with six production studios throughout California. One of their famous films was Carol of the Bells. When asked what inspired him to start Inclusion Films, Travolta recounted that his father was the most inclusive man he has known. Travolta’s father taught him that everyone was equal. After years of directing and producing, Travolta thought, “this is a great way to teach life skills and social skills through filmmaking.” Travolta realized that “everything that goes into filmmaking goes into everyday life. It’s teaching technical skills on top of learning how to work. It’s a win-win.”

Hopes For the Future of Filmmaking and Inclusion

Romond said people often think it will be more expensive or create more issues to have an inclusive film, but “none of the things that were difficult about her film had anything to do with people with disabilities or involved a disability.” She wants to see the whole process more inclusive from writing to preproduction, to production, to post-production, to marketing, to acting… inclusive by default. Romond reminded the audience that 25% of adults in the U.S. identify as having a disability; this intersects with all communities.

Lee added that making content accessible is not only the right thing to do; it is the economically smart thing to do. According to Nielsen, the disability market is over a trillion dollars. “It’s a win-win when you’re tapping into the disability communities, and people want to see themselves reflected,” said Lee.

Alkhateeb agreed that it’s crucial to think about inclusion from the beginning. “I think in our society, we’ve done a really good job of separating the disability community from the able-bodied community,” she said. “It’s so simple to accommodate people or to simply create a design of production at the beginning that’s inclusive of everyone onset.” She noted that it takes conscious, intentional design from the very beginning of production, to during development, to finalizing the script, to when you’re creating the schedule.

Whetter said when you cast real actors with disabilities and encourage writers to think about including characters with disabilities in their script, we can have a lot more jobs. “Let’s have allies and build the bridge to work together,” he emphasized. Whetter told a story about a Spanish director watching a movie with non-Spanish actors. After the film, the director told Whetter that the accent was a fake Spanish accent. Whetter drew a parallel to casting real Deaf and disabled actors. When a non-disabled actor plays a disabled person, “it just doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t sit well with us because they’re not even part of our community.” Whetter hopes that future filmmakers are taught in school to be inclusive through adding captions and audio description automatically. “It is strange now,” he said, “but remember seatbelts. At first, people were like, no, I don’t want to wear one. But now it’s standard and a habit; no one even thinks about it.”

Travolta is optimistic about the future and emphasized that “doors are opening, and all we’re asking for is opportunities. Give everyone a shot.” Travolta gave an example of his team working on a set and someone complimenting him that it was the best set they ever worked on. Travolta said that’s because some people get complacent and don’t want to be there. His team wants to do a great job, and they want to work.

Pilkington is also optimistic about inclusive filmmaking. “I think it’s gotten better as we are more inclusive, but we have a long way to go,” he said. “Hopefully, someday, more people will be inclusive.”

Lee smiled and added, “keep proving them wrong.” At the end of the panel, Lee reminded non-disabled filmmakers and artists who want to work with disabled people that they have a privilege to ask to hire people with disabilities in films, onset and to use that leverage for good.

Who is onscreen, behind the camera, writing scripts, producing films and seeing films is evolving. It’s essential for people and companies that want to reach all audiences to do the work of authentic representation across all elements of the industry. As Josh Welsh, President of Film Independent, said while introducing the panel, his company’s mission is to make the film industry “look like the world we actually live in.” It’s time to do that and more.

Meet the Author

Ava Rigelhaupt

Ava Xiao-Lin Rigelhaupt is a writer, actress, and advocate for disability and autism representation in the entertainment industry. She wants to write for TV or film, while also finding a way to continue acting.

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