Wish you saw more people with disabilities in the movies? Me too. That’s why, on Monday, March 2nd, I attended the closing night of the 4th Annual ReelAbilities Boston Film Festival at Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. Four short international films were shown that evening, followed by a Q&A with one of the filmmakers.
The first film Keep the Change centers on a couple, David and Sarah, who meet at a support group for people with disabilities. David has high-functioning autism, which he tries hard to hide. Sarah has autism as well, but is much more comfortable with it. They quickly hit it off, but David’s efforts to impress Sarah while concealing his autism come across as snobbish and upper-class. When Sarah wants to take a bus to get to the city, David insists on taking a cab because the bus is for “poor people.” He nonchalantly hands the cab driver a $20 bill and says, “Keep the change.”
When his behavior eventually hurts Sarah’s feelings and she leaves to take the bus home, David hops on the bus to talk to her. But here we learn that David avoids buses for a reason – the reason being that he’s unable to count change. When Sarah realizes this, she gently helps him count out his fare and leads him to the seat next to hers. What I took away from this is that everyone has their own struggles; sometimes trying to conceal them only leads to more problems.
The second film Just As I Remember is much more sobering. This film, created by Andrew Moir, features two families with fathers who have ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease), an ultimately fatal disease. First, Andrew’s own father was diagnosed with ALS when the filmmaker was four years old. His only memories of his father without ALS are through old pictures and home videos. Today, Andrew’s father lives on a ventilator, almost completely paralyzed and communicating with eye blinks. When asked why he chose to go on the ventilator that keeps him alive, his answer is extremely simple and poignant: he wanted to be around for his family.
We also meet David, a father of three young children. Even though David uses a wheelchair, one almost forgets he has ALS as they watch him play with his children and read to them before bed. These happy scenes are a stark contrast to the subdued David in personal interviews. Not knowing how long he has to live, he expresses sadness about not watching his children grow up. However, unlike Andrew’s father, David has decided not to use a ventilator once he stops being able to breathe on his own. I already knew there wouldn’t be a happy ending, but I still had tears in my eyes when I learned David had passed away three months after filming.
The third film Sounds for Mazin is a thought-provoking piece on how receiving a cochlear implant (a surgically implanted device that produces a sense of sound for those with profound hearing loss) impacts relationships with family and friends. It centers on a young boy, Mazin, who attends a school for the deaf in the Netherlands. Mazin has been deaf since birth, and is excited to hear for the first time – and so are his hearing family, who are eager to communicate with him more easily. But Mazin’s closest friend, Katelin, who is Deaf and received a cochlear implant a year ago, says it failed to help and made her nauseous. She communicates through sign language and frets that Mazin will abandon her for his hearing friends once he receives the implant.
A few weeks after Mazin undergoes the operation, his cochlear implant is turned on. Voices sound squeaky and robotic at first, but then become more natural over time. As someone who received a cochlear implant, I can vouch that this is accurate and am impressed that the film captured it so well. Eventually, he’s able to identify the rustling of wrapping paper, hear his dad’s cell phone ringtone, and chat with his family at the dinner table. However, at the end of the film, when Mazin chats with his hearing friends about his cochlear implant, it’s clear from Katelin’s expression that she feels left out. While Mazin’s cochlear implant has opened up his world, it changes his relationships in more ways than one.
The last film Stumped features the incredible recovery of a fellow Bostonian, Will Lautzenheiser. While teaching filmmaking and screenwriting in Montana, Will is afflicted with a group A bacterial strep infection. In a fight to save his life, his doctors are forced to amputate both his arms and legs. The film follows his physical and emotional rehabilitation. Gradually, Will regains strength and adjusts to his new body, figuring out how to get out of bed and get dressed on his own. We see him learning to walk on a treadmill with prosthetic legs. He also uses a prosthetic arm to feed himself, but becomes frustrated with the prosthetic’s limitations.
However, what is the most fascinating about Will’s recovery is that he actually channels his experiences into stand-up comedy (or “sit-down comedy,” as he calls it), despite never doing comedy before his illness. He performs and hosts his own shows and puts people at ease by laughing at his own disability. His resilience is probably part of what makes him such a good candidate for the first successful double-arm transplant, which he received in October 2014 at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I actually got to see Will’s new arms firsthand, since he was gracious enough to do a Q&A session with the audience after showing his film. He can hug his partner again and apparently he’s starting to have feeling in his new hands!
The ReelAbilities Film Festival is an annual event intended to promote “awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different disabilities.” This year, it ran in Boston from February 19th to March 2nd. If you missed the Reelabilities Film Festival this year, no worries – it’ll be back!