ReelAbilities kicks off third annual film festival

Technology that lets you use eye movements to paint, journeys to Spanish brothels, and climbs up immense mountain ranges only inches at a time: These are only some of the stories that the films selected for Boston’s third “ReelAbilities” film festival will tell. The festival, which aims to show a more nuanced image of people with disablities, will be having its opening night at Emerson’s Bill Bordy Theater on Jan. 30. 

ReelAbilities was started in New York in 2007 by the Manhattan Jewish Community Center. The festival aims to dispel some of the preconceived notions often associated with different disabilities. In the eight years since its inception, it has grown nationally to 14 cities. This year, the Boston festival is comprised of more films than ever, with a total of 17 pieces to be screened in seven different venues across Massachusetts during the festival’s Jan. 30 to Feb. 6 run. 

“In each city, it’s a different model in how they approach it,” said Boston Festival Director Ellie Pierce. “You start with this concept then each host city runs with it.”

For the Boston leg of the festival, this includes having Emerson College as a venue. 

Emerson’s involvement with ReelAbilities stemmed from its past connection to the Boston Jewish Film Festival, which, due to its connection with the Manhattan Jewish Community Center, now organizes the Boston faction of ReelAbilities. Pierce said that Emerson’s strong communications program and its commitment to meeting the needs of disabled students are what drew her to partner with the school; the festival’s initial partnership with a different university fell through after failing to be approved by the university’s higher-ups. 

“It is a testament to Emerson that it isn’t just about theory, it’s about practice,” said Pierce. 

The school is not only hosting the festival’s opening night, but it is also bringing the festival to the classrooms. Tracy Thresher and Larry Bissonnette, the stars of Wretches & Jabbers, one of the festival’s features, will be coming to David Kociemba’s Images of the Disabled class to meet with students. With extra credit as an incentive, Kociemba said he has also encouraged his students to watch the rest of the festival’s diverse film selection.

“These films invite viewers to join on these journeys, and along the way, transform their understandings about disability and difference,” said Pierce.

However, Pierce says that preaching is not the goal here.

 “The point of the festival,” he said, “is to build engagement, entertain, and educate.”

 According to Jeff Remz, communications and marketing manager for the festival, variety is another important goal. 

“The idea is you want to select diversity to make it appeal to different audiences,” said Remz.

This does not mean that the films do not have an overarching connection. “We’ve talked about the idea of people on journeys,” said Remz. 

These journeys are both physical and abstract. Wampler’s Ascent is a U.S. documentary about Steve Wampler. Due to his cerebral palsy, Wampler must climb El Capitan Mountain in Yosemite using only his upper body to lift him, two to six inches at a time. The film shows Wampler as he uses a suspension system to pull his body up the mountain, with his family and fans watching from below.

This differs greatly from the journey faced by the protagonists of one of the festival’s narrative selections, Come As You Are. In this film, three men with different disabilities decide to travel to a Spanish brothel to lose their virginities.

“You don’t expect to see a film like this,” said Pierce. “It’s reverent and it’s about sexuality, which people don’t usually connect to people with disability”

The diversity of the journeys presented in the festival’s films also has to do with the selection process employed by the program selection committee. When choosing films for the festival, the committee must evaluate submissions based on different criteria and festival goals, according to Pierce.

“We wanted more nuanced portrayals,” said Pierce. “Films not falling into some of the common tropes that portray people with disabilities as ‘other.’”

Another important element of the festival’s program organization is the inclusion of members with various disabilities that are represented in the films. The festival will include panels and discussions connected to many of its films.

“It makes sense to let people speak in their own words so our opening night we have Larry and Tracy (of Wretches & Jabbers) doing most of the talking,” said Pierce. “It’s their words and it’s their voices that should be central.”