Now in its seventh year, London Disability Arts Forum's (LDAF) annual Disability Film Festival continues to provide a powerful platform for the work of disabled filmmakers. The festival has gained a strong reputation for challenging stereotypes and pioneering accessibility. The event is unique in requiring that, for a film to be selected, disabled artists should have a leading creative input in its production. Colin Hambrook spoke to the Festival Director, Caglar Kimyoncu, about where the festival is heading.
How has the festival grown since its beginning in 1999?
The quality of the work increases from year to year and we are receiving films from more diverse sources. It remains difficult to find feature-length films in which disabled artists have creative control. But we always manage to find them. For example, last year, there was a surprise with Cloud Cuckoo Land (dir. Matt Dickinson, UK 2004). This is an independent film co-written by a disabled artist, Steve Varden, who also played the lead role. It's great to have a strong showing of independent films at the festival because the representation of disability and involvement of disabled people in the mainstream continues to be disappointing.
In terms of programming, every year we try something different. Last year, we had a live installation by a photographer and an on-line multimedia exhibition during the festival which were both well received. We would like to develop this side of the festival. Feedback from audiences and filmmakers indicates that in addition to discussions we should do more on developing filmmakers with workshops and training sessions.
Our video library has grown to just under 800 titles (excluding this year's entries) which cover a huge spectrum of work.
This is going to be our fourth year at the NFT. Although the venue is far from ideal, we have worked closely with NFT management to improve access. This has included providing disability equality training for all front of house staff. As the NFT is to be rebuilt, the festival is helping management to learn at first hand about the access requirements of disabled audience members.
Every year, the festival works towards improving the viewing experience and making it as accessible as possible. Our first festival didn't even have breaks. We have worked hard to provide audio description, subtitling, sign language interpretation for all films screened as well as a speech to text projection for every discussion event. For example, audio description is a particularly interesting area. There isn't one solution that will suit everybody. Every year, with Mind's Eye and Raina Haig's key input, we explore different aspects of audio description. For a filmmaker who wishes to maintain the integrity of their voice and vision it is essential to be involved in close captioning and audio description. We are constantly trying to improve close captioning/subtitling and sign language interpretation.
We strongly believe that access needs to be thought of in terms of the whole programme and not as an add-on.
Is it still true today that there are very few opportunities for disabled people in the film industry?
In the mainstream, things are changing but very slowly. It's so competitive and fraught with who you know. I think it is a similar story within all excluded and disenfranchised communities: if you can't get in you create your own way. Today's technology makes it easier for people to become independent filmmakers. It's often a question of survival: creating and producing work in any way you can. However, when you think about it, filmmaking is an expensive way of producing art.
Is it sometimes difficult to decide the level of creative control that a disabled artist has when selecting films for the festival?
Filmmaking is a team effort. Sometimes it's very difficult to hear one person's voice in a particular work. Disability film is a very open theme - every year discussion and debate take us further. In many films, very few people have overall creative control; often you are controlled by who you work with. This can be stakeholders (like funding bodies) or commissioners. If the director, writer and producer of a particular film is not disabled, then a disabled person must have had a strong impact on the production. There are films which include disabled people but it is clear that they were made by non-disabled people. This is very easy to notice usually by use of language, attitude and voice of character. When the film is not about disability the question is: how relevant is that to our festival? I believe that if it is telling a decent story, if it is asking questions and has a unique sense of existence then it is interesting. You always look for a certain originality. Last year's films were selected by a panel of disabled people. There was a lot of disagreement about films to be included and many arguments over medical versus social model. It makes for a difficult choice as sometimes there are blurred boundaries. One of the main aims of the festival is to put filmmakers in contact with their audiences. Here, we fall into the trap of showing more and more films as it is such a rare opportunity for filmmakers to show their work on the big screen. But we also need to make time for the filmmakers to talk to their audience. It's not just about celebrating the work in a happy ever after kind of way. It's more about taking disabled filmmakers further even if sometimes the audience feedback is negative.
Do the films screened at the festival challenge mainstream stereotypes?
Most of the films selected challenge the medical model tragedies or tales of high achievers seen on mainstream TV and cinema. It is challenging for many mainstream filmgoers to see disabled people having a daily life like everybody else. Many are surprised that the festival screens films that are not disability related. There is definitely a preconception that disabled filmmakers' work is going to be about disability.
In choosing films which are guided by the social model, isn't it possible you're going to end up with a selection of exclusively western films?
That is always a dilemma every year when I look for films internationally. When you have such a strong statement about films made by disabled people where they have creative control, this excludes many films from across the globe including western countries and indeed many made in this country as well. But on the other hand we want to raise questions and explore what's going on in the world. So we need to make exceptions. There is need of open discussion on how we receive films from different cultural perspectives. If the festival is to keep pushing boundaries as a model of good practice in terms of inclusion, we need to find a context for the inclusion of these films.
What are the main issues that emerge from the debates and the discussions at the festival?
Disabled filmmakers continue to lament the lack of opportunities. At the same time, we have production companies and other opportunity providers saying that they can't find disabled people to work with. Often disabled filmmakers say that these opportunities are not accessible. Several filmmakers have got together to formulate a Disability Film Action Plan. Through this, disabled filmmakers are taking the lead and clearly specifying their requirements to the audiovisual industry. It is a question of taking responsibility and proposing solutions towards achieving equality. Work on the plan is on hold at the moment because we need to find the means of resourcing its development. This project requires full commitment and appropriate levels of funding. There are a lot of people who feel passionately about this and are willing to get involved. We should be paying for this expertise, so money needs to be found to support this project. The Action Plan needs to be independent from LDAF or any single organisation but strongly supported by disability arts organisations and audio-visual industries. It needs to be owned and led by disabled filmmakers. It should be a whole country initiative. We are using the Festival on Tour as one of the tools to achieve this. We need to take the lead from local filmmakers wherever they are. It must not be London-centric.
Cinemas, events and festivals need to be challenged as to what they are providing for disabled people. We need to tell them what works and what does not.
The dream is to secure continuous adequate funding for the festival and not have to spend so much time and energy worrying about this every year. It is also our dream to get more people involved in the organisation of the festival and to eventually hand over to a new generation of filmmakers. We have started working with guest curators of different sessions at the festival. This has been a good way of involving new people. The festival needs a well-resourced dedicated team exploring and developing different aspects of the festival.
Why is it difficult to find funding?
Like a lot of other festivals which are struggling, we are not money makers. Our organisation is based on sharing with the community. The festival is not sales-driven. Therefore, we are not very sexy for many funders. They often fail to recognise the buying power of disabled people. We are also approached by potential funders who want to claim ownership. The festival must not lose the power of its voice or its identity.
Do you have any important announcements about the coming festival?
Disabled filmmakers should send us their films. Many of the films we don't select are available in our video library which is available to our festival audience and to the organisers of other festivals both nationally and internationally. The main thing is to use the festival to promote your work, to communicate with other filmmakers and as a sounding board. There are filmmakers who have revisited their work following feedback from audiences at past festivals.
The festival submission deadline is the 29th April. But there is a 1-month extension for films that are in post-production.
Also look out for the Disability Film Festival on Tour. In August it will be in Edinburgh, for two nights, as part of the Degenerate Disability Arts Festival. In September it goes to Birmingham and in October to Exeter. Full details will be available shortly. We are still negotiating with other groups to bring the festival to other parts of the country and beyond. We do not accept to take the festival to places where the experience is going to be inaccessible.
The 7th Disability Film Festival runs from 30th November to 4th December 2005 at the National Film Theatre.