The portrayal of disabled characters in mainstream film has had an uneven history. Actors like Dustin Hoffman (“Rain Man”) and Tom Hanks (“Forrest Gump”) have been praised for their depictions of people afflicted with mental and physical disabilities, but too often, in films ranging from 1932’s “Freaks” to 2008’s “Tropic Thunder,” one-dimensional portraits or insensitivity toward the disabled have been the norm.
Hoping to steer clear of stereotypes, the citywide ReelAbilities Film Festival, which kicks off on Feb. 9 in Manhattan and includes several screenings in Queens, seeks “to change perceptions in our society and to bring to the spotlight a large minority in America that is often shied away from,” according to Isaac Zablocki, the fest’s co-founder.
“Often people hear the word disability and say ‘I’m not interested,’” he said.
This year marks the fourth anniversary of the festival, which highlights films made by or starring disabled people. From over 100 submissions, the final roster of 11 full-length and seven short films were chosen for their quality and “how the disability is perceived in the film,” Zablocki said.
Another goal of the festival is to give films that would be written off by Hollywood because of their subject matter a chance.
“The American market hasn’t opened up to the topic of disability yet,” he noted.
One film being screened in Queens is “Girlfriend,” writer and director Justin Lerner’s first feature, about a young man with Down syndrome who romantically pursues a young mother. Lerner wrote the lead role for his friend Evan Sneider, who has Down syndrome.
Lerner said he didn’t set out to make an “issue movie,” which is the last thing he wants people to think when they watch “Girlfriend.”
“I would never in a million years want to make a film about a disability. I think that that is trite and preachy,” he said.
“It’s more empowering to make a film about life and human beings and cast someone with a disability in a role that doesn’t necessarily have to be played by someone with a disability,” he added.
Another film on the roster is “Mabul,” whose English title is “The Flood,” directed and co-written by Guy Nattiv. Nattiv, an Israeli-born filmmaker, based the film on an award-winning short he had shot previously.
The film focuses on a family whose 17-year-old autistic son comes back to live with them after the hostel where he was staying shuts down.
Nattiv spent three years researching autism to make the film, visiting families with autistic members. He said he wanted to do something different with the film than was done in Hollywood’s popular movie about an autistic character, “Rain Man.”
Zablocki welcomes everyone to see not just Nattiv’s depiction of the disabled, but all the films, saying, “Every year we get great audiences.”
‘ReelAbilities Film Festival’
When: Feb. 9-14 (Feb. 11-13 in
Queens), various dates/times.
Where: Central Queens Y, Samuel
Field Y and the Museum of
the Moving Image
Tickets: (646) 505-5708