By: Waverly Ann Harris, M.S.Ed.
When was the last time you cried during a movie? What about it evoked such emotion that you were moved to tears?
Film is a medium that has the power to transport us through a web of reality and dreams. We see ourselves in the storyline. We empathize and relate to the characters. A good film can speak truth while still being fiction. A great film can be relatable and feel authentic for diverse audiences. True authenticity in a film connects a spectrum of people across gender, races, cultures, backgrounds, and experiences so that they are all able to see themselves in that film.
Earlier this month, Sarah Edwards and I appeared on a panel at the Nashville Film Festival to discuss diversity and inclusion in filmmaking. We were accompanied by Monty Ross, producer of the film Malcolm X; Paul Jenkins, founder of META Studios in Atlanta; and Bears Rebecca Fonté, moderator and artistic director of aGLIFF. We were honored that the Nashville Film Festival chose to have Friends Life Community at the table in effort to increase opportunities and discussion around individuals with disabilities in film.
The irony is that Sarah and I are far from film people; however, we were asked to be panelists because Friends Life Community has produced films written and performed by individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As panel members, we traveled our way through the topics of bias, audience diversity, character development, distribution platforms, messaging, and challenging norms and storylines — the themes all centered around the value of authenticity.
If the key to telling great stories is authenticity, individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are among the greatest storytellers, as stories often flow naturally, unencumbered and unapologetically from them.
Sarah is a registered drama therapist and leads the visual and performing arts program, Advocacy Through the Arts at Friends Life Community (FLC). Through the mission of providing opportunities for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to grow personally, develop socially, and enjoy community as they live life together, FLC uses the arts to build skills in self-advocacy and confidence, and to promote community inclusion.
Film is one of the mediums in helping individuals 1) find their voice, 2) tell their story, and 3) connect with others through a shared experience. Filmmakers and editors partner with the individuals to bring their vision to a public platform. Twelve films were produced over the last two years that have been written and performed by individuals with disabilities at FLC. Ten new films are expected to premiere in 2022.
These films are personal, vulnerable, sometimes silly, and always authentic.
For 100% of the storytellers, this is the first time they have ever seen themselves on screen, literally and sometimes metaphorically. During the panel conversation, Bears noted that only 2.3% of the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 included a person with a disability in a speaking role. That percentage has actually decreased in recent years, according to a study by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
As we discussed further, individuals with disabilities are rarely shown on film as their authentic, everyday selves. When featured, they are often paired with a superpower moment, like the final minutes of a game when the captain passes the ball to the kid with a disability who makes the winning shot and gets carried out on the shoulders of their teammates.
The audience tears up and is overcome with emotion as they feel joy for the individual. They often see a person with a disability who defied the odds and became the hero in the story.
Instead, what if a person with a disability is portrayed in a story so authentic that the audience sees themselves in that story? What if that story evokes an emotional connection, a shared experience?
In I Love You by Keonna Reed, she tells the story of a young woman searching for love and in the process, falling in love with herself through the guidance of strong women surrounding her.
In Bradley Mullis’ story, This Is Who I Am, he faces the stigma of disability — what it feels like to be bullied and to overcome what others say in order to define his own identity.
And in Anna Claire’s Enchanted Journey by Anna Claire Wert, she sees herself as her favorite Disney character as she retells the story of Belle in Beauty and the Beast.
“Everyone deserves stories about them,” stated Paul Jenkins in our panel discussion.
People with disabilities rarely get to see themselves portrayed on film, much less in roles that are normalized and mainstream. Just as important, the rest of society also lacks opportunities to see individuals with disabilities on film, particularly in roles to which they can relate. By telling authentic stories, even when they are fanciful, Keonna, Bradley, and Anna Claire have portrayed characters in which their diverse audience members can relate.
Maybe one reason it is often hard to relate in face-to-face interactions is because we have been socialized to dampen and disguise our true selves. But when we see the films of individuals who can freely express themselves and connect through emotions, thoughts, and even fantasies, we are closer to finding ourselves in that story.
And when we find ourselves in that story, we are closer to that which connects us as humans in everyday life.
Waverly Ann Harris is the President and CEO of Friends Life Community (FLC). Waverly Ann has a MS Ed in Applied Behavior Analysis, Graduate Certificate in Conflict Management, and 15 years in nonprofit management. Waverly Ann has been advocating for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) and their families for over 12 years, most recently serving as the President/CEO of Friends Life Community for the last five years. Leading programs centered around innovation, inclusion, and community, Waverly Ann has taken FLC from a grassroots organization to a respected model and leader in the disability field.