Filmmakers, arts patrons, and those with their fingers on the pulse of social action for the differently abled, all come out in full force for Chicago’s first annual ReelAbilities Film Festival, which premiered on September 9th at Studio Xfinity-Comcast. The choice of venue was a sparkling example of how accessibility for all can transcend minimum standards and truly include everyone. Patrons of all mobilities could mingle at bar-side tables, and pods of cozy chairs, and films were aired on multiple screens each with audio and visual aids. Guests at-large joined via mobile video units and mingled as well as the event’s organizer and emcee Reveca Torres of Backbones (a local organization supporting spinal cord injury/disease) welcomed us to a night of short films unlike any other. 

Both Backbones and ADA25 Chicago curated four days of films celebrating the lives of many ordinary men and women who have made lasting impacts on their corners of the universe. The first and most awarded film of an evening of shorts was On Beauty (Short film by Joanna Rudnick & Kartemquin Films), a documentary look at the life of Rick Guidotty, a former fashion photographer that now focuses the camera on subjects with Albinism, and Chromosome 18 related illnesses. Guidotty’s efforts went to capturing subjects who are not used to hearing that they are gorgeous, and composing photos that bring out their joy. Rick and his film cohorts are also responsible for a number of awareness raising institutions, and Rick has targeted medical textbook photos as unwitting sources of discrimination. The photos, he argues are lifeless and exploitive, when portraits of proud, active individuals stand to bring more humanity to medicine.

Also on the evening’s roster was Sound-Shadows (Short film by Julie Engass & True Fiction AS), a film from Norway about the concept of sight as told from the perspective of a blind narrator. The film is animated like a line drawing and creates the feel of the narrators’ surroundings suggesting themselves, and then disappearing into nothingness as she explores. Another international entry from Portugal, Midfield (Short film by Pedro Amorim & Ukbar Filmes), about a stevedore and rugby player that is quite adept at negotiating his obstacles despite having extremely limited use of his limbs. 

The night wrapped up with a sweet romantic comedy, Keep the Change (Short film by Rachel Israel), involving two group therapy participants on the Autism spectrum, David and Sarah, that are charged with finding a birthday gift, but end up finding love instead. They navigate the pitfalls of romantic misunderstandings as poignantly as the iconic Harry & Sally.  

Day two of festivities was held at the Chicago Cultural Center, and the focus of the evening’s curated films and panel discussion was Autism and similar brain developmental disorders. An animated film, Sensory Overload (Short Film by Miguel Jiron & Interacting with Autism), highlighted what it can feel like to be overwhelmed by even the most normal surroundings. A young boy escapes the punishing noise of bustling street traffic and takes refuge with a coffee shop waitress. 

In the evening’s feature film, Wretches & Jabberers (Film by Gerardine Wurzburg & State of the Art, Inc.), we follow the work and travels of Larry Bissonnette and Terry Thresher, two autistic men and their supportive team, as they travel across the globe, reaching out to those without communities. They traverse Sri Lanka, Japan, and Finland, and though they are not verbally capable of communicating with their caregivers, visitors and the audiences of their speaking engagements, Terry Larry and their similarly outfitted autistic collaborators can get their message out via keyboards, computer screens and electronic speaking programs, or facilitated communication. 

They meet Chandima or “Chammi", a Sri Lankan providing access to typing technology for those like him, with a passion to have their voices heard, but do not have the means. In Japan, teenage Naoki joins Larry in a gallery showing of their art, and has his first in-depth conversation in person with others who share his lack of capacity for normal speech. 20-somethings Antti and Henna join Larry and Terry for an Autism speaking engagement in Finland; each is gainfully employed and well supported through government programs. With instant translation at their fingertips, not even language barriers cause them much delay, and the team adopts Antti’s darkly funny title for them all (Wretches and Jabberers) as a badge of honor.

Larry and Terry are hard at work to found and foster an international community, and their efforts see plenty of pushback. They struggle with funding, housing, and their own needs that can sometimes be tough to communicate via electronic device. The struggles they have against their own bodies is most poignant as they battle to get their messages out. In a meeting with a state representative, Terry urges him to ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ as he is overcome in a fit of yelping. After the film was presented, representatives from a panel of experts encouraged us to research some of the controversies that have arisen from facilitated communication therapy that is used in Wretches & Jabberers. While the method can allow for unprecedented communication, it depends partly on caretaker assistance, which can potentially distort or fabricate the users intended words. Nonetheless, the film is a rich and rewarding journey, as Terry & Larry encourage the world to consider them ‘more like you than not’.

The Real Abilities festival curated a collection of wonderfully strange, powerful and beautiful films, each with a big heart for their differently able subjects and causes. I encourage you to check back with SPORK! for footage and coverage of the final days of the ReelAbilities festival. Live the experience and meet the participants by way of our photos, film and GoPro footage! 

The Event: ReelAbilities Film Festival (September 9-13th)

Venues: Held at Studio Xfinity-Comcast, The Chicago Cultural Center, The National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago, Columbia College Film Row Cinema, and the Reva & David Logan Center for the Arts.  


You can find Sean Margaret on Twitter: @SMargaretWagner