By Karen Zautyk
Last Thursday evening, Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey played host to an extraordinary film festival, held at its N.J. operations campus on Supor Blvd. The Harrison site was actually one of eight venues in Essex, Bergen, Union, Somerset and Hudson counties to screen selected productions sponsored by a New Yorkbased organization called Reel- Abilities.
Formed in 2007, ReelAbilities “is dedicated to promoting [through film] awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different abilities.”
Initially, the movies were screened in the five boroughs, Long Island and Westchester, but two years ago, the group received a grant to go nationwide. We learned this during a pre-screening reception chat with Ravit Turjeman of Dragoman Films distribution company, who is co-director of the ReelAbilities project.
In 2013, the festival will also be presented in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, the District of Columbia, and Houston.
Those venues also feature varying programs ranging from fulllength movies (there are seven in the 2013 festival) and/or collections of short films, all of them produced, directed or starring people with disabilities. The productions come not only from the U.S., but also Belgium, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, China and Spain.
For the Harrison Goodwill event, a collection of international shorts was selected:
“Beautiful,” directed by Genevieve Clay. In Australia, a young couple with developmental disabilities “navigate the challenges they are faced with when their relationship is displayed in public.”
“Be My Brother,” also directed by Clay and set Down Under. “A young man with Down Syndrome breaks down the barriers of social prejudice when his charm and charisma [including the ability to recite appropriate Shakespearean dialogue] challenge the prejudices of a stranger at a bus stop.”
“Sensory Overload,” directed by Miguel Jiron. An animated film that “gives the viewer a glimpse into the sensory overload experienced by people with autism and shows how often sensory experiences intertwine in everyday life.”
And “Willowbrook,” directed by Ross Cohen. Set in 1964 and based on true events, it depicts a young pediatrician who joins the staff at Staten Island’s Willowbrook State School only to discover questionable hepatitis experiments being conducted on patients.
For this viewer, each of the short films left a lasting impression, but none more so than “Willowbrook.” Part of the reason is that we can recall the scandal when the horrors of the place were exposed and the public learned of the appalling conditions that had turned what was supposed to be a residential school for mentally disabled children into a filthy, overcrowded warehouse of the forgotten.
But the film itself also spoke deeply to the heart. In addition to the pediatrician, the prime focus was on one young patient with whom he dealt. The boy’s condition was not defined, but we suspect it was cerebral palsy, that dreadful developmental disability that can often lock a brilliant mind inside a body that prevents even the most basic communication with others.
It is the stuff of nightmares, and “Willowbrook” portrayed it superbly. The tormented boy, left to sit alone for hours in a wheelchair gazing out a window, thinks to himself, “If I really focus with my mind, someone will hear me.”
And what is it he wants them to hear? “I guess, just that I’m alive.”
In his introductory remarks before the movies were shown, Goodwill’s President and CEO William J. Forrester, quoted famed director Frank Capra, who once said, “If you make a good film, you can change the way people view the world and themselves.”
To this viewer, all the ReelAbilities selections did that, but none more so than “Willowbrook.” To learn more about ReelAbilities, visit www.reelabilities.org.
Regarding Goodwill, Forrester explained that the organization serves “individuals with all types of disabilities: physical, developmental, intellectual and psychiatric. They are your co-workers, friends and family members, and we must ensure that they fully participate in our community.”
Part of that participation comes from being gainfully employed, which is one of Goodwill’s prime goals for its clients. A statement from the organization cited an increase in unemployment numbers for people with disabilities, “jumping from 11.7% at the close of 2012 to 13.7% at the end of January 2013.”
That increase “came despite no significant rise in unemployment in the general population.”
But Goodwill also noted: “The good news is that the job market is becoming more flexible for all workers, which benefits people with disabilities. In many ways, the workplace struggles of employees and job-seekers with disabilities are reflective of larger cultural issues and as a result, greater attention is being paid to the issues.”
Greater attention is also being paid thanks to initiatives such as the ReelAbilities film festivals.