eliza berkon is a journalist and musician based in washington d.c. 

ReelAbilities Film Festival banishes the victim paradigm

“I don’t look at myself as having a disability—I just have to do things a different way than most people,” says Shelby Bean in Anyone Like Me.

Shelby Bean is hard of hearing, born with a condition that prevented the full development of his ears. He’s also a football coach.

Before attending Gallaudet University—the nation’s only university dedicated to educating students who are deaf or hard of hearing—Bean did not know American Sign Language or much about deaf culture, he says in Anyone Like Me, a 2017 documentary about Gallaudet’s football team by Mimi d’Autremont. The short film appears in this month’s ReelAbilities Film Festival: Northern Virginia, presented by the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, at venues throughout NoVA March 10-18.

When d’Autremont, then a graduate student at the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design, stepped onto Gallaudet’s D.C. campus, the video journalist was drawn to the sound of a large drum emanating from the football field. What began as a small assignment to tell a visual story ultimately unfolded into a two-year project, with subsequent screenings at the D.C. Shorts Film Festival and beyond.

“If you’re seen as different your entire life, or there’s something that makes you an outcast or not fully understood,” d’Autremont says, “and then you do find a place that actually is your cultural home, what is that like?”

ReelAbilities, a film festival with more than a dozen locations throughout the country and internationally, was established at the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan in 2007 and promotes films made by, for and about people with disabilities. Among the festival’s five core principles is to take a “progressive approach” to the subject.

“We don’t really want the characters in the film or the protagonist to be portrayed as some sort of victims,” says Yaara Kedem, ReelAbilities national coordinator. “We want to be able to show actual aspects from real life.”

Thus, films like Rain Man, a 1988 movie featuring an autistic character portrayed by Dustin Hoffman, or the more recent Stronger—with Jake Gyllenhaal playing a man who lost both legs during the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing—warrant some criticism even though they do raise awareness, Kedem says.

“The fact is that there are a lot of actors out there [who] actually are disabled and could be receiving more opportunities,” Kedem says. “People in the film industry choose to work with movie stars rather than give other opportunities and find maybe new ways to portray a character.”

As part of the local festival, Phillips Programs—a network of schools and services for students with behavioral challenges in Fairfax and Loudoun counties, as well as Maryland—will host a screening and panel discussion of My Feral Heart, a 2016 narrative film about a man with Down syndrome who must start over after the death of his mother. This year’s festival also includes films about the Blind Boys of Alabama vocal quartet, a wheelchair basketball team and an American veteran.

Sarah Berry, cultural arts director of the JCCNV, says she is proud to host the local event for the sixth year. “It’s the spirit of inclusion and the power that film has to let people see into the life of people who are differently abled,” Berry says.


Online video project keeps memory of Iota alive

‘Local Shop’ leads listeners behind the scenes of Arlington businesses