Disabled filmmakers speak at the BlackStar Film Festival

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Director At Natasha Ofili’s to guide light in its creative process is to break the rules.

“When you create a story, my story, there are no rules. There are no limits because living with a disability, you feel like there are always restrictions, and it just makes you want to give up,” Ofili, who is deaf, said through an American Sign Language interpreter.

Ofili was speaking as part of a virtual BlackStar Film Festival panel on Sunday afternoon about disability justice and film. She was one of four black and Latina filmmakers with disabilities on the panel, hosted by Andraea LaVantDisability Justice Consultant and Impact Producer of Crip Camp: a revolution for people with disabilities, a 2021 Netflix documentary about a summer camp for disabled teenagers.

Disability justice, LaVant said, is about centering those who are marginalized within the disability community: people with disabilities of color.

The panel emphasized accessibility for attendees: captions and an ASL interpreter were provided, and each panelist began by describing their on-screen image. LaVant talked about her “sherbet-colored” braids; Ofili described herself as a dark-skinned black woman with a curly afro. “I want to emphasize that afro,” she said. And LaVant ended the panel, though there were lingering questions from the audience, when the captionist had to leave: “We’re not going to not practice what we preach,” she said.

READ MORE: Blackstar Festival films shine a light on health equity

The filmmakers shared how their disabilities have shaped their approaches to media creation.

Reveca Torres has lived with a spinal cord injury since she was 13 years old. Torres, co-director of the disability-focused program Chicago ReelAbilities Film Festivalsaid she used to think she had to separate her disability from her artistic creation, but later realized she had to create her own path – blending her different identities as a disabled person and artist.

For her, art has always been a collaboration.

“I have limits on my hands, I use a wheelchair, an electric wheelchair, so I never really create anything on my own, whether [with] a caregiver or a friend or an assistant,” she said,

Torres never thought she could make movies because she couldn’t hold the camera, but with the help of a friend she learned how to mount a camera on her wheelchair.

Andres “Jay” Molina had a similar experience while making his film, Fire through the dry grass, about a group of disabled black and brown artists living in a nursing home in New York City during COVID. He and his team used GoPros to recount their experiences, and it was Molina, who became disabled five years ago, who helped strap the GoPros to his team’s wheelchairs.

They are examples of interdependence, an important concept in the disability justice community, and ingenuity, LeVant said.

“Every day we work with products that weren’t designed for us,” she said, and that can result in beautiful and unique art.

Ofili spoke about the importance of hiring film crews with disabilities – his film, The Multi, included eight crew members who are deaf and hard of hearing, and two who hear – and let people with disabilities tell their own stories. Often it is people who are not disabled who make these films.

“They go to film festivals and they speak for us,” she said. “It’s like a white person writing a black story. … In a way, it’s meant to silence us.

Panelists also talked about expanding the definition of accessibility. It’s not just about physical accessibility, like a wheelchair ramp or the availability of ASL interpretation, but it can also mean scheduling flexibility for a person with a disability whose energy is limited. Molina said he was grateful to team members who made flexibility a priority when working with him.

Ultimately, Torres said, people need to change their understanding of the disability community.

“People think disability is a negative thing or something to be ashamed of,” she said. “But there is so much pride in our community.”

She encouraged people to see disability culture not just as ‘access needs’, but as creative tools.

“It’s our culture,” she said, “and it should be visible and celebrated.”

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