In 1989, the movie “My Left Foot,” starring an up-and-coming Anglo-Irish actor named Daniel Day-Lewis, was released. The movie detailed the biography of Christy Brown, an Irish artist and writer born in the 1930s. Brown was born with cerebral palsy, and the only limb he was able to control was his aforementioned foot. He was raised among his siblings rather than institutionalized and abandoned, as was common at the time, and the world is richer for it. Brown wrote the autobiography from which “My Left Foot” was adapted, and his art has been exhibited in his native Ireland and in New York.
Institutionalization is now far less common, thanks to community and home-based services that enable people with disabilities to receive necessary care at home, but negative stereotypes of disability persist. ReelAbilities is working to reframe disability through positive representation. It is the largest film festival in the country dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories, and artistic expressions of people with disabilities. Initiated in New York in 2007, the festival presents award-winning films by and about people with disabilities. The Northern Virginia ReelAbilities Film Festival, powered by the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia, launched in 2011.
“Sharing ReelAbilities films with the community is a powerful way to not only increase awareness, but to shatter misconceptions about people living with disabilities. The protagonists of the films we select represent real people who have joys and challenges but are not victims,” said Sarah Berry, cultural arts director of the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.
Screenings cover disabilities such as adults with Down syndrome navigating institutionalization and independence, an inclusive dance school that provides an environment for children to be creative on their own terms, entrepreneurs on the autism spectrum, and tireless advocates fighting for disability rights across the globe. Relationships between families, couples, mentors, and neighbors will all be explored. Post-screening discussions will explore issues addressed by the movies themselves, but also move beyond that toward discussion on the broader themes as well as what individuals and communities can do better.
Some of the movies are from Israel; for example, “Shoelaces” explores the dynamic between an absent father and the son with special needs he left behind, who could save his life. “Scaffolding,” another movie in Hebrew with subtitles, explores a different father-son relationship, where a child with learning disabilities yearns to expand his future past that of his father’s scaffolding business.
All but one of the movies (“Ain’t No Mountain”) are accompanied by an if-needed audio description; for all but one of the movies (“My Feral Heart”), viewers may bring along any required service animals. Movies are scheduled to be held in a variety of venues across Northern Virginia; for more information on screenings, visit http://reelabilities.org/northernva/.