From an unsparing look at mental illness to a man with Down syndrome's search for love, organizers hope the selections for the third-annual ReelAbilities Film Festival will raise awareness and funds for a local center for special needs.
When Kathy Leichter embarked on a journey to reach closure over her mother’s suicide, she had no idea how many people she would be taking along with her.
Leichter’s quest for understanding is chronicled in her 2013 documentary, Here One Day. At times unsettling, tragic and confrontational, the film also contains moments of beautiful imagery that serve as a reminder that despite her continuing turmoil, Leichter’s long struggle to come to terms with her mother’s actions hold out the promise of better days. These moments also enable viewers to catch their breath after listening to painfully self-aware recordings her mother made and saved in the years before her death.
This unsparing look at mental illness — and the damage it inflicts upon the afflicted and their loved ones — is what led Sara Wenger to select Here One Day as the closing night film for the third annual ReelAbilities Film Festival, which opens March 20.
The aptly named festival, a project of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, uses films, discussions and related programming to shine a light on the myriad of issues and situations that people with disabilities must overcome.
Wenger, the assistant director of education and outreach services for JFCS, led a small team of staffers and board members, along with other community members, to select the six films that make up the Philadelphia festival, which is dedicated to raising awareness and funds for the JFCS Center for Special Needs. The first ReelAbilities festival was held in New York City in 2007, and 12 other cities in addition to New York and Philadelphia now hold their own renditions.
Works like Leichter’s “really celebrate humanity, resilience and creativity,” Wenger explains. “They are great enrichment experiences for everybody — that’s what I think is so remarkable about them.”
Leichter, a New Yorker who has been making acclaimed documentaries such as A Day’s Work, A Day’s Pay, for more than 20 years, has devoted more and more time to taking her film — and her story — around the world to work with those affected by suicide.
“There is a huge demand” for the film, the director says. “I get requests every day for screenings from medical schools, communities of faith, suicide survivor groups, bereavement groups — so many people want to see it. I am using this film to change attitudes and behaviors about mental illness.”
Leichter says the inclusion of visuals like tranquil farm settings provides a way “to communicate emotion through images, not just words.” She says she was inspired by Claude Lanzmann, the director of the epic documentary Shoah, who said that he wanted to make the unbearable bearable. “I wanted some of that in my film: the spaces where you get to breathe and just take in the beauty helps you to deal with the actual narrative.”
Wenger says she watched dozens of films to find the right mix to appeal both to different disabled constituencies as well as the movie-loving general public. “We try to diversify as much as possible, to touch on the differences out there, but it comes down to which films seem to make the best match for the audience and community partners,” she says.
For example, she notes that she screened three films on blindness that she loved but ultimately they didn’t make the cut because the blindness advocacy group she hoped to partner with wasn’t ready to do so this year.
Conversely, she says she established an excellent working relationship with the Swarthmore-based Deaf-Hearing Communication Centre, which led to JFCS and the centre partnering for the festival’s opening night film, Silent Games, about the Israeli national deaf soccer team’s mission to make it to the 2007 World Championship in Bulgaria. The screening, on March 20 at the Ritz East, will also include a speaking appearance by Stephen Weiner, the provost for Gallaudet University, the country’s premier institute of higher learning for the hearing-impaired.
Wenger and her crew also found synergy with the documentary, AKA Doc Pomus, about the legendary pop songwriter who was paralyzed by polio. Ryan Gooch Nelson, a local musician who is paralyzed and plays in the band 61 North, is slated to speak to the audience after the screening at the Roxy on March 24. Wenger also hopes to have Nelson perform before and after the screening.
Documentaries are a natural fit for the festival, but narrative films can communicate a powerful message of their own, as demonstrated by Justin Lerner’s Girlfriend, which will be shown at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute on March 23.
What gives this 2010 film such impact is the first-time director’s decision to cast Evan Sneider, an actor with Down syndrome who attended high school with Lerner, in the lead role. His character inherits a large sum of money and uses it as a way to woo his longtime crush.
Lerner, who shot the film in his hometown of Wayland, Mass., says one of the reasons he thinks Girlfriend is still a festival favorite four years after its release is because of its broader appeal.
“It’s against my filmmaking to try to teach anyone about anything or to send a message,” he says. “This is a movie where I just happened to cast someone with Down syndrome. The character didn’t have to have Down syndrome to make it work — I could have cast a nerdy kid in his place” as another type of social outcast looking to make a connection — “but it wouldn’t have been as interesting.
“I just wanted to tell the story with a person who is realistically flawed — like we all are.”
IF YOU GO
ReelAbilities Film Festival