ReelAbilities Film Festival focuses on talents of people with disabilities

Pittsburgh’s second annual ReelAbilities Film Festival opens Wednesday in an activist mode with an acclaimed documentary about Hollywood’s portrayal of people with disabilities in movies and television, a personal appearance by the star of the groundbreaking reality show “Push Girls,” and an exhibit of revolutionary fashion photography featuring models with disabilities.

“There’s no denying that people are influenced by what they see in media,” actor Gary Sinese says in “CinemAbility,” the documentary that opens the festival 7 p.m. Wednesday at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Shadyside.

Mr. Sinese, who played the memorable Vietnam veteran and amputee Lt. Dan Taylor in the 1994 film “Forrest Gump,” is one of the dozens of actors, directors and other Hollywood insiders who share their viewpoints in writer/director Jenni Gold’s 2013 film about the power of television and film to shape society’s perception of disability.

“CinemAbility” is one of four films in the festival that runs through Oct. 30. Thirty cities, including Pittsburgh, offer disability-themed film festivals in partnership with ReelAbilities, a six-year-old organization based in New York. The mission is to promote awareness of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with disabilities.

Narrated by actress Jane Seymour, the 98-minute film surveys the numerous portrayals of disability in film and television that have become part of American popular culture over the past century. From the “saintly old sages” and “sweet young innocents” of silent film to obsessive avengers and superheroes to the more realistic representations of today, these film and television images are “our collective social wallpaper,” observes Ben Affleck, one of the film’s on-screen champions.

With hundreds of film clips, the fast-paced documentary traces the evolution of disability images and storylines, from the stereotyped and simplistic to the insightful and unforgettable. Landmark performances that left a lasting impression on audiences are highlighted, including Patty Duke’s Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker” (1962), Elizabeth Hartman as a blind woman who falls in love with Sidney Poitier’s character in the interracial drama “A Patch of Blue” (1965), Alan Arkin’s lead role as a deaf man in “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (1968), and Jon Voight as a physically disabled Vietnam vet in “Coming Home” (1978).

The documentary also explores the influence of more contemporary efforts, such as “Rain Man” (1988), “My Left Foot” (1989), “A Beautiful Mind” (2001), and “Ray” (2004), along with a number of television portrayals that broke new ground in their respective eras, from “The Wild, Wild West” in the 1960s, two versions of “Ironside” (1967-75 with Raymond Burr and 2013 with Blair Underwood) to the students with disabilities portrayed in “Glee,” which debuted in 2009.

While acknowledging progress over the years, the film also poses questions for today’s entertainment industry — some of which recall past concerns over portrayals of minority groups: Why does Hollywood still sometimes revert to stereotypes? Why are talented actors with disabilities overlooked when casting the roles of disabled characters? Why are roles that are unspecific in regard to physical attributes rarely interpreted as characters with a disability (the wheelchair-using scientist in James Cameron’s “Avatar” is a notable exception).

“Enlightened understanding of disability by the entertainment industry can have a positive impact on the world,” Ms. Seymour states in the narration, echoing the host of performers and filmmakers (including many with disabilities) who lend their candor, passion and urgency to the documentary’s message.

Energetic, smart and often funny, “CinemAbility” is a tour de force and a reliable yardstick of progress in Hollywood’s portrayal of disability. Eight years in the making, it moves in all the right ways to gently educate ordinary people as well as those who have the power to create images that transform minds.

Accompanying the Pittsburgh screening of “CinemAbility” are two presentations that trumpet new ways of thinking about the portrayal of disability. Angela Rockwood, creator, producer and star of Sundance Channel’s “Push Girls,” will speak after the film. A photo exhibit by Nordstrom, which has featured models with disabilities in its marketing for nearly two decades, will be on display.

Ms. Rockwood happily lays claim to being a pioneer in the portrayal of disability through “Push Girls,” a reality show featuring four wheelchair-using young adult women living interesting lives in Los Angeles and allowing the public to see how they do it.

“The meaning of ”Push Girls“ is that we push limits, boundaries and fears, no matter what,” said Ms. Rockwood in a phone interview. “It’s a mental, emotional, spiritual thing.”

The concept for “Push Girls” came to Ms. Rockwood early in her adjustment to a severe spinal cord injury resulting from a car accident 13 years ago. At the time of the accident, she was a 24-year-old model and actress.

The disability resulting from the accident introduced her to a new world that she was not aware of, she said. “When I woke up after the accident, I was completely numb, but a little voice spoke to me saying everything will be OK.” She soon met and became friends with other like-minded women with disabilities, including Auti Angel, a hip-hop dancer who also had sustained a spinal cord injury. Auti and two other friends — Tiphany Adams and Mia Schaikewitz — were the inspiration for “Push Girls.”

The show features their real lives — building careers, pursuing and achieving goals, dating, all kinds of typical life experiences and concerns. “Our common denominator is our spirit,” said Ms. Rockwood. “Life hands you obstacles. We are women warriors.” The program won a Critic’s Choice Award for Best Reality Series in 2013.

When the program’s second season ended earlier this year, Sundance Channel did not renew for another season, so Ms. Rockwood is currently waiting for word from other networks while developing a new film project. She is also working on a fashion campaign she hopes will pave the way for models with disabilities in a big way.

“My focus is on being a rolling empire,” she said with a laugh.

She added that she feels honored to participate in the Pittsburgh screening of “CinemAbility,” which she appears in. “I love the film. It broadens people’s minds and takes them to places they never thought about.”

Ms. Rockwood has modeled for Seattle-based Nordstrom. The company’s Summer 2014 catalog, which included a powerful image of a tattooed, athletic veteran with a prosthetic leg, generated wide attention in the mainstream and disability media. Images from that catalog will be on display at the “CinemAbility” screening.

“Nordstrom consistently used diverse models,” explained spokeswoman Tara Darrow. “It’s who we are. We want to represent the community we serve. Our biggest compliment is hearing from customers who say, ‘I see myself in your catalog,’ or ‘I see my son or daughter.’ ”

Orignal Article By: Tina Calabro
Read The Article