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Casual Inclusion of Disability on Screen at Sundance Helps Normalize Having a Disability While Accessibility Hampers Inclusion of Disabled Attendees

Marquee for Sundance Film Festival, January 19-29, 2023Park City, Feb 5 – Feature-length films that premiered at Sundance such as Is There Anybody Out There?, Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie, and The Tuba Thieves, as well as a number of shorts, explicitly included elements of disability and deafness throughout. However, several additional films featured casual inclusion of disability, which also helps to normalize having a disability in society.

For example, a teenage camper in Theater Camp uses a power wheelchair. We see him both in a montage while auditioning for a show, and later rolling through camp. He is portrayed similarly to other campers. In Slow, contemporary dancer Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) meets Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas), who’s assigned to interpret for her class of deaf youth. While the film is not about this class but rather their relationship, the casual inclusion of this class helps normalize deaf students. In Magazine Dreams, aspiring professional bodybuilder Killian Maddox is a caregiver for his disabled grandfather. In a documentary about Little Richard, viewers learn that he had limb differences, mental health conditions, and later on in his life, became a wheelchair user. And in Chanshi, a series about a young Jewish Orthodox woman finding herself, mental health is discussed.

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. While none of the films mentioned above are about disability, the casual inclusion of disability in them is important. [continue reading…]

Little Richard Review

still of Little Richard in a scene from Little Richard I Am Everything

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Los Angeles, Feb. 3 – A fiery escapism into the world of Little Richard, Director Lisa Cortés’ vision for storytelling is on excellent display throughout this entire documentary. We explore a side of Little Richard that even an avid fan myself found so much more insight and genius in who Little Richard was. The true pioneer and King of Rock N’ Roll, Little Richard inspired and launched the careers of so many legendary artists today such as Jimmy Hendrix, James Brown, Mick Jagger, The Beatles and more. Little Richard: I Am Everything premiered Jan. 19 at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Little Richard explores his disabilities early on in the documentary, mentioning his limb differences, mental health, and later on in his life, becoming a wheelchair user. It was great to see Little Richard’s upbringing, getting a closer look on his journey and how early in his childhood he’s identified his gift through music. However, Little Richard went deeply into the things that he was struggling with. Whether it’s spiritual mortality, his musical legacy, getting the credit he deserved, or his sexuality in public spaces, you get a deep dive into Little’s Richard’s thoughts, regrets, perspective, and more.

CNN Films sold the rights to Little Richard: I Am Everything to Magnolia Pictures at Sundance, with plans to release the documentary in April. This is a much watch and I am looking forward to a chance of being able to see it again once released.

Review of “Magazine Dreams”

Still of Jonathan Majors in "Magazine Dreams" wearing only underwear in a darkly lit room

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Glen Wilson

Park City, Utah, Feb 3 – “Magazine Dreams” is a 2023 American drama film written and directed by Elijah Bynum in which Jonathan Majors portrays a shy, grocery store clerk, Killian Maddox, an aspiring professional bodybuilder determined to dream big and reach his goals. “Magazine Dreams” is a heavy film, there will be scenes that are tough to process and moments where you’re taken deep into Killian’s reality. A beautifully shot film with amazing visuals, a well told story, and great performances across the board from its actors, the film premiered January 20, 2023, at Sundance Film Festival.

Disabilities and mental health play a huge role in “Magazine Dreams,” as Killian is a caregiver for his disabled grandfather while dealing with his own therapy sessions, anger, childhood traumas, and psychosis. Did I mention anger? Killian’s rage is a constant theme within the story, and it never fails to amaze me how far the character goes when triggered, catching the entire audience by surprise. Part of the anger stems from Killian’s use of steroids, which he injects on the regular as he works to create the perfect body for himself. No matter what situation Killian found himself in, his “Hulk”-like anger was the root of it every time. This surprised me in one scene where a failed date went wrong. Killian took a new route in this scene and handled it quite graciously, although his previous behavior and difficulty picking up on social cues were the reason the date failed. [continue reading…]

“The Gift of Accessibility Keeps On Giving and Gives To Everyone” – Interview with Unstoppable Founder Juliet Romeo

Juliet Romeo posing for a photo at Slamdance Festival. Caption: "Juliet Romeo, Founder of Unstoppable, Slamdance 2023. Photo by @laurentakespix"

Photo Credit: Lauren Desberg and Slamdance

Salt Lake City, Feb 3 – Juliet Romeo (she/her) is a disabled filmmaker based out of Miami, Florida. Along with being a creative (and 2021 Respectability Lab alumna), Romeo is an advocate for disability representation on screen and accessibility at film festivals. She is the founder and a programmer for Slamdance’s Unstoppable. Unstoppable features films made by filmmakers with visible and invisible disabilities and is exclusively programmed by people with disabilities. This year, Unstoppable held its first in-person showcase while continuing to stream online as it did the previous two years.

During a discussion about her journey to Unstoppable, Romeo recalled a time in 2015 when she was working on her documentary chronicling her personal journey with disability and decided to go to her first film festival. It was the “first time taking a trip where it wasn’t conducive to my disability.”

In the years following, her experiences at film festivals became increasingly worse and she thought there must be a way to step up festivals differently. When her film went into the festival circuit in 2019, she hoped that she would be able to have influence over the accessibility at the festivals that accepted her film. When that didn’t happen, she began writing a proposal for an accessible festival and told a friend the next time I go to a festival “it will be because I have a platform. People will be asking me to speak. People will be driving me door to door.” Four years later, those very things happened at Slamdance. [continue reading…]

“Slow” Review: The Dangerous Idea of Normalcy

Two people lying in a bed about to kiss in a scene from "Slow"

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Washington, D.C., Feb 3 – In her film Slow, which premiered at the 2023 Sundance Festival, writer/director Marija Kavtaradze offers a tender study of two messy people’s humanity. Contemporary dancer Elena (Greta Grinevičiūtė) meets Dovydas (Kęstutis Cicėnas), who’s assigned to interpret for her class of deaf youth. As their connection deepens, Dovydas discloses that he’s asexual—which takes Elena by surprise. The two individuals then enter a relationship dance testing their boundaries and definitions of sexuality, intimacy, and love.

The film’s analog style is mesmerizing. The slight grain and muted pastel colors evoke nostalgia of a first love, which Kavtaradze emphasizes through her pared-down filmmaking approach. By focusing on the way the body moves through its environment, the film creates raw, honest moments and forces viewers to pay careful attention to Elena and Dovydas’ exchanges, such as their body language, facial expressions, and tone. Otherwise, the audience could miss subtle hints of the character’s feelings. A flicker of sorrow, moment of hope, flash of annoyance. [continue reading…]

“Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie” Review

Kitoko Mai and Morgan Bargent sitting in an office having a conversation in a scene from Thriving

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

New York City, Feb 2 – What do you think of when you hear the words Dissociative Identity Disorder? Is it a term that causes fear? Maybe it’s a phrase you would only think of when watching a film such as Split, where the protagonist with this disorder is set up to be a villain. Our culture has slowly built a monster to be feared when it comes to severe mental illnesses. An individual with Dissociative Identity Disorder, or D.I.D., is almost invisible, serving as fodder for villain tropes in genre movies, as cheap jokes, or as examples of people who have failed society, instead of being individuals that society itself has failed.

This mythos is the complicated reality that Kitoko Mai, one of the most charismatic heroines you might come across this year, has to detangle when she finds herself diagnosed with D.I.D. in the short film Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie.

Written by Kitoko Mai and directed by Nicole Bauzin, Thriving: A Dissociated Reverie is a surrealist journey into Kitoko’s world that takes any preconceived notion of the disorder and twists it in a playful yet insightful manner. After decades of this disorder being inauthentically portrayed, and usually, by white men, Kitoko takes us into their own perspective in a refreshing manner. We walk through Kitoko’s journey to a diagnosis, and how they have learned to embrace every part of them literally and figuratively. [continue reading…]

A Sensory Trip Down Memory Lane “By Water”

Still from "By Water" featuring art of a woman in black and an old man on a chair in yellow.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Los Angeles, Feb 1 – I bloom. I flower. I grow. I thrive.

These four short sentences are etched into a notebook near the end of the animated short By Water, which premiered at Sundance 2023 as part of the Animation Short Film Program. The intensely personal experimental short follows an unlikely hero’s journey into his subconscious, where each memory becomes a cathartic vehicle for reconciliation and healing for himself and his sibling.

The story stems from the writer/director Iyabo Kwayana’s relationship with her brother, who has a mental disability and whose whereabouts were unknown for three years. After an unexpected voicemail 3 years after his disappearance, Kwayana made the conscious decision to honor his message and create By Water as a way to complete her brother’s story. [continue reading…]

Teacher of Patience: A Celebration of Small-Town Advocacy

A scene from "Teacher of Patience" with Emily and a woman talking on a beach. Slamdance logo in bottom right corner.Salt Lake City, UT, Jan. 30 – As part of Slamdance’s first in-person Unstoppable series, a showcase of films made exclusively by disabled artists, “Teacher of Patience” spotlights the Felter Family and follows them as they travel to educate the public and advocate for people with disabilities. After Tom Felter heard multiple stories about first responders making quick decisions and judgments about people with disabilities that led to unnecessary tragedies, such as the death of Ethan Saylor, he realized that he was in the unique position as both a paramedic and father of Emily, who is a person with Down syndrome, to educate the public. Thus, he developed The Emily Talk with first responders in mind.

In the same vein as the Talk itself, one of the primary goals of this 30-minute documentary is to serve as an educational tool for first responders and preaches the idea of patience when interacting with people with disabilities. Having Emily front and center strengthens not only the educational aspect of the film, but the film itself. Emily is a funny and loving person who also swears like a sailor, and the films shows her complex nature by following her day-to-day life while her family fills in aspects of her story in sit-down interviews. [continue reading…]

“Accused:” Deaf and Medical Views Clash in “Ava’s Story”

Stephanie Nogueras and Joshua M. Castille hugging in a scene from the “Ava’s Story” episode of ACCUSED.

Credit: Steve Wilkie/FOX

Washington, D.C., Jan. 26 – Until their child is born, most parents wait in anticipation. They pick out baby names, scour parenting books, and dream about what kind of person their child will become. But what happens when expectation doesn’t meet reality? Marlee Matlin’s directorial debut “Ava’s Story,” the second episode of crime drama Accused, presents a real-life example to that question: the cochlear implant debate.

The episode revolves around Ava (Stephanie Nogueras), Deaf* surrogate to hearing couple Max and Jenny (Aaron Ashmore and Megan Boone). All is well, until they discover their child Lucie is deaf. The couple wants Lucie to use cochlear implants; Ava wants to protect Lucie’s deafness. In a moment of desperation, Ava kidnaps the baby. Some viewers may be quick to judge her impulsivity, but Matlin shows that the cochlear implant debate is nothing but complex, deftly weaving each character’s passion and motives into a more complete picture. [continue reading…]

Garble Takes Viewers on an Enchanting Kaleidoscopic Journey in “Well Wishes My Love, Your Love”

A still from "Well Wishes My Love, Your Love" with a person using a prosthetic arm to pet a horse.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

New York City, Jan 26 – Well Wishes My Love, Your Love is a mesmerizing experience with a carefully crafted animated style that will take you into another world. Gabriel Gabriel Garble’s animated short film premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival in the Animation Short Film Program. An accomplished illustrator outside of being an animation director, Garble’s experimental film is breaking the barriers of animation as a whole and how we as an audience can experience a film.

Newly orphaned and freshly wounded from a loss, a boy lends his companion a prosthetic arm for the day. The companion records the limb being exposed to textures and materials, surprising his friend with the recorded journey. Through experimental 2D and 3D techniques, Garble builds a dreamy and contemplative universe. This silent film can feel all-encompassing through its ambient sound which captures both natural sounds and a hypnotic hymn that pulls the audience into a slow meditation. This means that as we journey through the boy and his friend’s prosthetic arm, we’re thrown directly into Garble’s unique world and travel from the perspective of both the boy and the prosthetic arm. We watch a sunset that feels so abstract yet so real. We pet the silhouette of a three-legged horse, who, through the carefully composed music and animation, truly breathes right next to us. It can be hard to pull away from the screen as we’re pulled into colorful hypnosis. [continue reading…]

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