Now that many of 2014’s successes have slowly rolled out onto the big screens of the UK, the Nottingham Alternative Film Network team decided to look back and take stock of the year’s hits and misses. And one thing definitely stood out: Several films about blind, Deaf or disabled people flourished exceptionally well last year, with perhaps the most notable examples being Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe, Lou Ye’s Blind Massage, and James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything.
As you will no doubt remember, the latter even saw Eddie Redmayne win an Oscar (of course it did, it was always bloody going to) for “Best Performance” by an male actor. Though that got us thinking, that isn’t really very representative, is it? Getting an able-bodied actor to play a real person with a disability, and then give him an award for being good at it. What about all the disabled actors, artists and performers out there who are also delivering incredible performances? Where are their Oscars?
Fortunately, other award systems do exist, and many of these did champion exactly the sorts of films we’re talking about. The Tribe triggered great excitement last year by winning the Critics’ Week Grand Prize at Cannes back in 2014 for its depiction of the Ukrainian Deaf community, and last time we checked it had won a truly remarkable 35 awards. Equally, Blind Massage took an impressive six awards at the Golden Horse Film Festival, and went on to win a Silver Bear for cameraman Jian Zeng’s “Outstanding Artistic Contribution.” This tidal wave of awards therefore certainly suggests that films about disabled people are being well received by critics. But these films’ potential to entertain large audiences has equally been supported by the fact that many of these films have since gone on to gain important distribution deals.
The overall shift in the film industry, then, seems to have been towards embracing disabled characters’ potential to appeal to anyone, something we’re also currently seeing on BBC3, thanks to their excellent ‘Defying the Label’ season. Though really, with the exception of The Tribe, we found ourselves wondering how much this important contemporary debate and film movement was making its way out to our local community in Nottingham. What’s more, we wondered what was being done to make these films accessible to people who are blind, Deaf or disabled. In short, is the industry doing enough to engage these audiences and give them a sense that they too could make films about their own experiences, and have them (potentially) be very successful?
We felt that on a regional level, it certainly didn’t seem so. We also didn’t want to see this important step for the film industry simply turn out to be 2014’s flavour of the year, like some kind of trendy fad. So the Nottingham Alternative Film Network has decided to try to start making film events for minorities, and events designed to get people not from minorities interested in their stories.
Now, it may be that this is risky. In our first few attempts, we may well encounter the odd empty room. The odd bit of undesirable egg on our faces. But this is a dialogue we are going to try to commit to, because it is an important one and it seems like nobody else in one of the UK’s most vibrant cities will do so otherwise! Our hope is that in doing so, an audience and a culture will also eventually be created that is even more open-minded and representative than it currently is, because it seems very wrong to us that audiences and filmmakers from these groups currently get almost no filmic forum in Nottingham at all to discuss their issues.
So we’ve launched “New Perspectives,” a project which is going to have its first outing this August and will see all its profits go to Disability Direct. On the 15th of this month, we will be running an event at the Pearson Centre for Young People in Beeston, which will have full wheelchair access, British Sign Language interpretation and maybe even a few improvised “whispering interpreters” for the visually impaired if they’re needed. This event will be intended to be a celebration, a festival built up around films that have disabled protagonists at their heart.
And rest assured, Eddie’s award-winning face will not be making an appearance. The five films being shown will all be about about blind, Deaf or disabled people, played by people with those impairments, and even sometimes (but not as much as we would like) directed by people from those communities too. And we believe these films should have mass appeal as well, because they are all truly incredible artistic achievements, which stylistically manage to communicate other people’s perspectives in new, exciting or thought-provoking ways.
This especially includes New Perspective‘s star attraction: our first ever feature film and UK premiere of Dre Didderiens’ My White Shirt! This film follows a a very remarkable young man named Rob Krikke, who has Down’s syndrome and is sadly trying to overcome the anguish caused by his sister’s recent death by creating a series of professional theatre performances. Watching his creative process is deeply moving, but this deep, atmospheric and intense film also shows how brilliantly the medium can communicate different kinds of experiences just through the use of carefully thought-out techniques (and for that reason is well worth seeing if you’re an aspiring indie filmmaker yourself).
Two other important attractions will be Deafness, the short which preceded Myroslav’s The Tribe, and another award-winning short from the accomplished British Deaf filmmaker, titled The End. We are particularly excited to be to be showing Deafness, because it offers a tantalising and rare glimpse into the development of this auteur’s style; but we also believe it has great potential to be inspiring to local filmmakers, who can see how effective a good, compelling idea can be in getting their short stories ultimately awarded and recognised, even if they’re choosing to focus on the perspective of a minority. This is something Ted Evans has certainly done with his film, which imagines how the invention of a cure for deafness would affect the Deaf community. The social unrest and personal turmoil that results in this film is wonderfully expressive of that community’s pride, and the film equally makes a very compelling case for how beautifully cinematic British Sign Language can be.
In addition to this, we will be showing Riley Hooper’s affectionate documentary Flo, and by way of contrast Martin Edralin’s Hole, a fiction that is shot in a very stark documentary-esque style. Flo centres on a day in the life of a partially-sighted photographer called Flo Fox, who now also has MS and cancer; but not for one minute does she ever stop radiating joie de vivre, and her attitude to life makes this film really very heart-warming and inspirational. Whereas Hole may seem cold, but its frank, open-minded look at the sexuality of its fictional disabled character (played by Ken Harrower) really is thought-provoking. The film is equally very faithful to documenting Ken’s daily routines, again making it an interesting attempt to portray a perspective that is not normally represented.
So we hope for the time being, the passion we have for these films will have convince you to come and see these films, and give you a sense that the money spend on your ticket will be well worth investing in the local Independent Living charity we are supporting! Together we believe we can make Nottingham a centre for change in the film industry, and together we can ensure that the onscreen representation of people with disabilities doesn’t simply prove to be a fad. So we hope to continue this discussion about who the film should represent, and how that industry can also do more to be inclusive with you in future years!