With the release of Crip Camp sparking conversations about disability and accessibility, Charlotte Little spoke to Lindsey Dryden, an Emmy-winning producer and director, and a founding member of FWD-Doc (Documentary Filmmakers with Disabilities) and Jim LeBrecht, co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary, about the creation of a new toolkit.
Representation is something we’ve all been hearing a lot about in recent times, but what does it actually mean? For many underrepresented audiences, we’re only just starting to see three-dimensional and authentic stories on the silver screen. I was born moderately deaf and diagnosed with deteriorating sight in my early teens, and for a long time, I struggled with my identity as a disabled person.
Growing up, I didn’t feel I was a part of “the cinema world”, where superheroes saved the day and spunky kids slew monsters.
On the rare occasions that I did see portrayals of disabled people, it was far from reality. It was pitiful. It was dehumanising. It was something to be scared of or to fix.
It’s 2021 now, and things are a little better. The subject of representation is a conversation that more and more people are engaging with, but disability representation is still vastly underdeveloped. Accessible film screenings and representation within programming is something that exhibitors should be exploring and prioritising, and now is as good a time as any.
One of the years’ Oscar nominations is Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (2020), the bold and remarkable story of Camp Jened, a rickety summer camp for disabled teenagers in the 70s, which then went on to inspire a groundbreaking disability rights movement in the United States. It was the first time I had ever seen a documentary about disabled activists, let alone a funny, profound, and empowering one.
To tie in with the film’s release, FWD-Doc, in association with Doc Society and supported by Netflix have produced Changing The Narrative: A Toolkit for Inclusion & Accessibility, using Crip Camp as a case study of inclusive practices and accessible delivery.
“At FWD-Doc, we’ve been hugely inspired by and encouraged and galvanised by Crip Camp. How it was made, why it was made, who it was made by – and the kind of environment and ethos that they created in the process of making the film. And so, we were having brilliant conversations with DocSociety and with Netflix about crafting a document that was informed and influenced by the values of Crip Camp. It feels so critical that we reflect on what’s been done already, learn from those things, and make them deployable for other films and other teams,” notes Lindsey Dryden, an Emmy-winning producer and director, and a founding member of FWD-Doc.
Within the toolkit is a quote that states that there’s not a lack of disabled audiences, but a lack of opportunity for them to engage with film-making. For exhibitors, Jim LeBrecht, co-director of the Oscar-nominated Crip Camp, believes that there is plenty that can be learned from the toolkit.
“If it is a matter of not knowing where to begin or having resources to understand how to do it, this document goes a long way of answering a lot of questions. And if there’s fear involved with, “I don’t know what I’m getting myself into,” then reading this will help. But then, in the long run, anything that’s worthwhile doing is going to push an envelope for you or a movement.”
This year’s slate of films have seen an increase in disability representation, some of which explore disability and ableism in more depth.
“Something that we talk about in the toolkit is the concept of ableism and what that means,” states Lindsey. “A lot of people might not have heard that word or understand what its significance is. We would love for people to think about how their old practices have excluded, systematically excluded, one in four people in the population. And think about what ableism means, how we all enact it in different ways at different times. And think about how to approach business and creativity differently. We are a creative industry, whether it’s at the exhibition level, or the production level, or anything in between. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what we do best.”
What can exhibitors do
As a young disabled person who grew up having never seen an authentic or positive representation of my disabilities on the screen, accessible screenings and provisions have become more and more important to me. I wasn’t comfortable asking for captions until I was 18/19, and this experience taught me the value of ensuring a comfortable and welcoming environment for audiences as the first step towards inclusion.
While for some that may involve disability and deafness awareness training, creating a space for disabled people and hosting events that are disability centric can help these audiences feel prioritised. I want cinemas to want me there and to value me.
Lindsey adds, “Exhibitors can contribute to that as well, in terms of what they programme and how they think about the stories that may work. We’ve seen that when you programme films that are apparently made by underrepresented minorities, that there’s a tremendous audience for that. Advertise what we can come to, make sure it’s clear that there are captions, that there’s audio description.”
Despite the number of films featuring disabled representation on the increase, there is still plenty of work to do, but Lindsey believes this toolkit and films like Crip Camp are another positive step in the right direction.
“I think Crip Camp has been truly transformational for so many of us. We know that visibility isn’t enough. But wow, is that visibility powerful when you haven’t had it before! There’s always so much work to do. And so many people have been doing amazing work for so long. We stand on the shoulders of many fantastic advocates and creatives and activists.”