MANHATTAN, New York -- Celebrating the unique stories of the disabled community, the ReelAbilities Film Festival featured original films, a comedy night, an industry summit and powerful conversations about the narrative of disability in society.
In its 15th year, the festival ran from April 27 to May 3 at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. The festival was fully accessible with ASL interpreters, visual descriptions and wheelchair access at all venues.
Co-founders Isaac Zablocki and Anita Altman created the festival with the intention of highlighting gifted storytellers and giving them an opportunity to have their work front and center in an industry that often overlooks disabled stories.
Zablocki said that as a filmmaker with a disability (he was diagnosed with dyslexia), he realized that disabled stories are told from one-dimensional perspectives. Now he says it's time for people with disabilities to show the world that their experiences are complex, emotional and human.
"My goal was to bring films to people that weren't being seen that needed to be seen," said Zablocki. More than three dozen films are featured in venues across New York City. Directors, writers and stars of the films are in attendance for many of the screenings.
The comedy night at Gotham Comedy Club featured standup by Victor Varnado, Mike Coytayo, Pavar Snipe, Charles Walden and Maysoon Zayid.
Sketch comedy was provided by the Ready, Willing and Funny Players. Improv was performed by UNIQUE and Irreverent.
The industry summit focused on panels discussing disability and inclusion in entertainment, media and fashion. The opening night included a red carpet event, a screening of the film "Unidentified Objects" and a special honor for Academy Award-winning actor Troy Kotsur.
Awarded the Oscar for best-supporting actor in the film CODA, Kotsur spoke about his life as a deaf person and how disability directly impacted his family. His father was paralyzed after an accident and his brother suffered a traumatic brain injury as a child.
Kotsur noted that growing up he never considered himself as disabled, but when his father and brother were injured they shared a special bond that uniquely shaped their family.
"It's just been such an honor for all these celebrities not only to come to support the films but to really help support the message of ReelAbilities," said Zablocki.
The ReelAbilities Film Festival has grown into an international program, with events throughout the United States, Canada and Central America.
"Fifteen years later, we are the largest disability film festival in the world," Zablocki said.
Getting into the festival takes passion, creativity and true talent. Zablocki says great storytelling is the most important part of ReelAbilities. By crafting compelling stories, filmmakers are not just making films, they're changing the way people see and interact with disabled people.
"I'm waiting for the day where ReelAbililities is completely obsolete and there's no need for it because disability inclusion is everywhere," said Zablocki.