BOSTON — Twelve-year-old Yoni finds his severely autistic brother Tomer in a chicken farm holding a chicken upside down by its feet. Only Yoni can calm Tomer and he does so by singing a passage from the Torah. That’s from “Mabul,” about a family’s imminent collapse as Yoni prepares for his Bar Mitvah. It’s part of this year’s second annual ReelAbilities Boston Disabilities Film Festival, a series of films and discussions presented by the Boston Jewish Film Festival.
Started in 2007 in New York and headquartered there, the festival has expanded to 13 cities. Boston’s program takes place Jan. 31-Feb. 5, 2013 at locations in Boston, Newton, Springfield, and Hanover. Like BJFF’s title festival, which happens over two weeks each November, the ReelAbilities program spans continents, venues, and in this instance, fictional and real characters with varying levels of physical and mental abilities.
According to BJFF artistic director Amy Geller the February timing helps mark Jewish Disability Awareness Month and African-American History Month. And while she reflects that “some of [ReelAbilties’ films] are Jewish, some are from Israel, most are not,” she stands behind the excellence of the cinema. If there’s any doubt about thematic ties, hosting ReelAbilities reminds her of the Hebrew expression tikkun olam -— repair the world. “It’s the idea that we are all responsible for transforming the world and making it a better place,” she says.
ReelAbilities opens with “Mary and Max,” a meticulously hand-made story about a lonely Australian girl who strikes up a cross-generational friendship with a New Yorker struggling with Asperger’s syndrome (perfectly voiced by Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Admirers of “Wallace and Gromit” will dive into director Adam Elliot’s stop-motion clay universe. All of the lettering, from tiny beer bottle labels to correspondence between the main characters, is in Elliot’s hand. The design team molded more than 1,000 mouths to create the illusion of speech. Elliot does not over-sweeten childhood and instead keeps a steady palette of browns for Mary’s earnest search for companionship and charcoal gray for Max’s uneasy New York life. (“Mary and Max” may not be appropriate for young viewers.)
Though “Mary and Max” opened Sundance in 2009 and garnered several awards in its native Australia, the film hasn’t hit many US big screens. BJFF hosted it that year and invites it back, this time with members of the Asperger’s Association of New England as post-film discussants. Geller says she was particularly drawn to the scenes in which Max’s anxiety takes physical form. “That’s something that’s not clearly an outward disability. How do you explain to people what’s inside of you?”
The first scene of the Spanish narrative “Me, Too” features a close-up of a half-shaven, professorial man delivering a speech about disabled persons in the workplace. “All those societies that divide and isolate minorities are mutilated societies,” he says. It takes a few moments to register that this character (and first-time actor Pablo Pineda), has Down syndrome. But that doesn’t stop him from falling in love with his supposedly “normal” co-worker. Like many other ReelAbilities selections, “Me, Too” challenges perceptions of what it means to be disabled, often with humor. Both Pineda and co-star Lola Dueñas (a favorite of Pedro Almodóvar) picked up acting awards at the San Sebastián International Film Festival. It screens three times at two different locations with ReelAbilities and is making its Boston area premiere.
Geller appreciates that ReelAbilities programmers preselect film titles and offer presenting organizations the chance to curate based on local interests. She says that members of the BJJF staff narrowed the pool from about 40 possible films to 15 and then sought input from Boston’s disability advocacy community to help make final selections.
In addition to “Mabul,” (previously shown by BJFF), “Mary and Max,” and “Me, Too,” the line-up includes narrative films about a blind sprinter (“The Straight Line”), a delusional psychiatric patient (“Princess”), and one short film program (“Anything You Can Do,” “Aphasia,” and “I Don’t Want to Go Back Alone”).
Goldie Eder, a psychiatric social worker and adviser to the MFA, says she was particularly fond of the closing night film, “Princess,” a Finnish narrative based on the true account of a psychiatric inpatient, beloved by both medical staff and fellow asylum residents, who insisted she descended from British royalty. “The film shows her character’s strengths as well as her vulnerabilities. That’s something important to say about all the films I screened,” says Eder, who will moderate a discussion after the film with local experts on the history of psychiatric care.
Both Eder and Geller underscored the fact that they sought stories of people who challenged being defined by disability alone. “They are not just their disability,” said Eder, citing how the blind runner in “The Straight Line” or the paralyzed young man in “Body and Soul,” a documentary from Mozambique, who starts a shoe business are active people “who are doing things in the world and are not just stuck or stagnant.” And often, the able-bodied characters, like the blind runner’s guide whom he falls for, give their own doses of tough love: “Nothing is necessary. You don’t have to run,” she tells him. “And I don’t have to coach you.”
“What it means to be in a relationship, to be an outsider, to make enough money to survive … these are issues we all cope with, that’s what makes this group of films particularly strong,” explains Geller, adding that “while these films deal with disabilities, more than that they talk about universalities of the human condition.”
All the films in ReelAbilities have English open captions and “The Straight Line,” which plays at the MFA, is also audio described, for which Hannah Goodwin, manager of accessibility at the MFA, uses the analogy, “what really good radio journalists do all the time.” It’s a recorded description of the action that takes place outside of dialogue, such as how something smells or how a location appears. “If you listen to someone reporting from another part of the world, excellent audio describers really give the flavor of whole environment,” she says.
BJFF is working closely with its venue partners like the MFA to provide an accessible movie experience for as many people as possible. That means venues prioritize wheelchair accessibility, admittance of animal guides, provision of sighted guides, information in Braille, ASL interpretation, Communication Access Real Time (CART) or other captioning, audio described recordings, and assisted listening. Though visitors should contact venues in advance with certain requests. Some programs are free or have low-fee admission rates.
For Goodwin, it’s not so much about who’s in the seats or who is on screen. These films are an opportunity for “filmgoers who love film to really take in the whole spectrum of film,” she says.
Erin Trahan edits The Independent, an online magazine about independent film, and is moderating the spring series of The DocYard at the Brattle Theater through April 2013. Reach her at email@example.com.