ReelAbilities Film Festival Challenges Perceptions of Disabilities

What constitutes beauty? Why are some human features considered beautiful and others not?

That’s the focus of “On Beauty,” a documentary that kicks off the third annual ReelAbilities film festival on Thursday that chronicles photographer Rick Guidotti’s exploration of human perceptions of beauty. Following 15 years as a successful fashion photographer, Mr. Guidotti began focusing on a different type of beauty, triggered by the chance sighting at a bus stop of a tall and lithe woman with albinism, a genetic condition that results in little or no production of the pigment melanin in the skin, hair and eyes.

The festival, which runs through Oct. 29 and will showcase three documentaries and two films, also brings in guest speakers and exhibits, all aimed at provoking thought and challenging assumptions about disability.

The films begin at 7 p.m. at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Shadyside.

Pittsburgh is among a dozen cities that host ReelAbilities film festivals. The inaugural ReelAbilities event, coordinated by the JCC in Manhattan in 2007, laid the groundwork for what has become a national effort to promote awareness and appreciation of the lives and artistic expressions of people with disabilities.

ReelAbilities Pittsburgh is sponsored by JFilm: The Pittsburgh Jewish Film Forum and FISA Foundation. A local committee spends months selecting films and related programs that will resonate with the Pittsburgh audience and promote dialogue at the event and beyond.

In “On Beauty,” Mr. Guidotti, as a fashion photographer, was starting to feel uneasy about his participation in idealizing certain images of beauty, and lost a sense of purpose in his work. “I felt like anyone could do it,” he says in the film. “It required nothing of me.”

From the catalytic moment of spotting the woman at the bus stop, he embarked on a journey that would lead to a new focus in his work and his life. Following a groundbreaking photo feature in Life magazine, he founded Positive Exposure, a nonprofit that uses photography to change public perceptions of people with genetic, physical and behavioral differences.

The film highlights some of the young adults whose lives have been transformed by the celebration of their beauty. These are people who, because of their facial appearance, have experienced staring, stigma, shame and rejection. Particularly affecting is the story of people with albinism in East Africa, where children with the condition are called “ghosts” and often abandoned by their parents. Worse, as many as 40 people with albinism have been killed for their so-called “golden” body parts, which are believed to bring good luck.

Mr. Guidotti will speak following the screening. An exhibit of his photography and that of Pulitzer Prize-winning Pittsburgh photographer Martha Rial will be on display over the run of the festival. Ms. Rial’s “Goddess Project” features local women and girls with disabilities.

The festival continues on Saturday with “The Case of the Three-Sided Dream,” a profile of the late jazz composer and musician Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who created a legacy in the 1960s and 1970s but is lesser known today than some of his contemporaries. Filmmaker Adam Kahan shows why he is worth knowing.

Mr. Kirk, who lost his sight at birth, had an intense relationship to sound in his environment and was said to be able to make music out of anything. As a political activist, he used his platform as a musician to educate mainstream America about the expressiveness of jazz and to understand its importance as “black classical music.”

Those who knew and admired Mr. Kirk, who died in 1977 at age 39 from complications of a stroke, said he was a man with a deep desire to express himself and connect with his listeners. One of those admirers is local jazz drummer Roger Humphries, who will present an hourlong concert with his band RH Factor following the film. Mr. Humphries, a legend in his own right, sat in with Mr. Kirk at Club 100 in Cleveland in 1961 when he was just 17. ”I was blown away,” Mr. Humphries recalls. “He had a unique gift.”

“Mimi and Dona,” scheduled for Monday, is a personal documentary that chronicles the process of transferring the care of a much-loved family member with intellectual disabilities from an elderly parent to a state-run residential facility.

Filmmaker Sophie Sartain’s grandmother, Mimi, age 92 at the beginning of the film, was the lifelong caregiver of her daughter Dona, 64. Born in the 1940s, Dona did not benefit from special education and other services that are readily available today. For six decades, mother and daughter were comfortably situated in their home in a suburb of Dallas, within close reach of an attentive extended family.

The film traces the mother and daughter’s difficult adjustment to the new living arrangement while highlighting the national dilemma of aging parents caring for aging adults with disabilities. By one count, 855,000 adults with intellectual disabilities live with a parent age 60 or older.  Discussion with the filmmaker will follow the screening.

A teenager struggling with mental illness is the subject of the feature film “Gabriel,” scheduled for Oct. 28. Actor Rory Culkin plays the title role in a poignant film that draws viewers into the teen’s vulnerabilities and obsessions, and the fragile hopes of his caring family. Writer/director Lou Howe will lead a discussion after the screening.

The French feature film “The Finishers,” Oct. 29, is a coming-of-age story about a cheeky teenager with cerebral palsy who persuades his emotionally distant father to enter an Ironman triathlon with him as his partner. The father, a onetime athlete, reluctantly agrees to attempt the near-impossible task, which inevitably brings the two of them closer. Paralympic Gold Medalist Dan McCoy and his father, Mark, will speak with the audience after the film.

By Tina Calabro

Originally printed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette