ReelAbilities Film Festival Highlights People with Disabilities

With Hollywood still dismissing filmmakers with disabilities, one film festival is dedicating itself to giving these artists an opportunity to jump-start their careers. The ReelAbilities Film Festival, which held a three-day event in Los Angeles this past weekend, celebrates awareness and the power of film to shatter misconceptions about the capabilities of people with disabilities.

Starting in New York 12 years ago, it is the first film festival to exclusively spotlight a series of award-winning films that are both made by and about people with disabilities.

In 2012, the organization grew beyond the Big Apple, with other cities across the United States hosting festivals, starting with Cincinnati. Since then, ReelAbilities North America became ReelAbilities International, and now the organization has hosted events in 20 cities across the world.

The ReelAbilities Film Festival Los Angeles opened with “The Peanut Butter Falcon,” starring Shia LeBeouf and Zack Gottsagen, an actor with Down syndrome.

The festival does more than just show films. It also goes beyond the films to discuss real issues that plague the disability community. ReelAbilities Film Festival screens its movies to schools, corporate offices and community-based organizations throughout the year.

For too long, the film industry has profited from the practice of hiring prominent actors without disabilities to play roles of characters with disabilities.

“It’s important to tell these stories and to tell them authentically,” Danny Woodburn, a little person known for his work in Seinfeld, among other TV shows and films, told KABC-TV, the Los Angeles ABC affiliate. “If we look at The Academy Awards, 61 nominees over the history of The Academy Awards have been for actors who have played characters that have disability. Twenty-seven of those actors are winners. Two are actually people with disability — Harold Russell and Marlee Matlin.”

Related Article: ‘This Close’: Getting People with Disabilities on the Big Screen

Michael Dougherty, who lives with spina bifida, is the co-director of the ReelAbilities Film Festival. For Dougherty, movies are not just his passion, they are his saving grace. He told KABC that they saved his life by providing “a window into a world that was beyond hospitals.”