According to the Rick Hansen Foundation, roughly ¼ of Canadians identify as having a mobility, vision or hearing disability or challenge. Yet when it comes to showcasing and supporting stories about deaf and disability culture on Canadian screens, this country’s film festival landscape is not exactly bursting with claims to promote these communities or improve access for its members.
Enter ReelAbilities Film Festival Toronto, the Canadian chapter of the New York-based ReelAbilities Film Festival, the largest film fest in North America showcasing cinema about deaf and disability culture. Now entering its eighth year, RAFFTO – presented by the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre – is set to make its biggest mark on the landscape yet under new artistic director Lora Campbell, an industry veteran who has spent time on both sides of the film-fest equation, writing and directing their own work as well as serving behind the scenes at various fests.
RAFFTO’s 2023 edition will hold events both in-person and online. Yet its opening-night event will be a virtual one – a screening of director Jo Rochelle’s coming-of-age feature Jasmine Is a Star – even though most hybrid fests would opt for its signature event to be a physical one.
“This is a question that we discussed a lot, given this is the first time in three years that RAFFTO is back with any in-person events at all,” says Campbell. “But it serves our community well to have an online option. I can’t imagine a world in which we’ll go back to only in-person events again.”
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Other highlights of this year’s edition include screenings of Michael McNeely’s Advocacy Club, a documentary about the Canadian Helen Keller Centre in Toronto, Mark Bone’s music-doc OKAY! (The ASD Band Film), which chronicles autistic musicians, and Shabnam Sukhdev’s doc Unfinished, following a young woman’s struggle with mental illness.
“Our intention is to respond to the inherited way that disability is represented in not just film, but media in general,” says programming director Linda Luarasi. “These stories have been traditionally told by people who are not disabled. Our hope is that the festival is giving a voice and platform to stories that more authentically represent our communities, both the joys and tensions.”
With world-renowned giants (TIFF, Hot Docs, Inside Out) and hundreds of niche festivals crowding out each other for space in Toronto’s film-festival calendar, RAFFTO is hoping that this year will be a breakthrough moment to not only what deaf and disability culture means, but how its communities’ artists and storytellers can be supported.
“People arrive at disability in some many different ways, but each of those experiences form an identity,” says Ophira Calof, creative director of the Accessible Writers’ Lab, a national program that was launched in part by RAFFTO to experiment with what a genuinely accessible TV writers room might look like in practice. “Disability culture is about how these all form a tapestry of many communities under one umbrella. What’s the beauty that comes from the specificity of those lived experiences?”
In addition to Calof’s program, RAFFTO is launching three new initiatives this year to support creatives: a short film competition, with options to participate live or virtually for a $5,000 prize plus technical support from William F. White and Grande Camera; and two mentorship programs, one for screenwriting and another for acting and performance.
Screenings will have captions and audio descriptions available, panels (including talks with Shelved showrunner Anthony Q. Farrell) will include ASL interpretation, and all events will be pay-what-you-can.
“We think about accessibility all the time, including financial accessibility,” says Luarasi. “A lot of people in our communities disproportionally live in poverty and are traditionally left out of these cultural experiences.”
“In terms of what our financial model is to sustain this, we rely on our community sponsors and partners, but we’re going to reach out to more in the industry for next year and going forward,” Campbell adds. “Right now, the festival is run on a smaller-than-usual festival budget – it’s very grassroots. But my hope is to just keep growing. It’s a saturated city for film festivals, but ReelAbilities has a goal of longevity on its side.”
RAFFTO runs May 11 through 19 online and in-person in venues across Toronto (raffto.ca).
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