“Be deaf when people tell you that you cannot fulfill your dreams.” What a different way to look at disability! This was one of the posters that were put up by the Ability Foundation to welcome people to AbilityFest 2005. Bharathy Venkateswaran, Vidya Sagar, Chennai, provides glimpses of the India International Disability Film Festival recently held in Chennai.
As the curtains for the India International Disability Film Festival went up at Anand theatre in Chennai on 7 July 2005, the theatre wore a festive look. At the entrance there was just a simple banner which said Ability Foundation. But the moment one entered the theatre, the cheerful mood caught on. It was heartening to see scores of enthusiastic youngsters, who had turned up at the festival. There were also a lot of faces with questioning expressions, wondering what the show was going to be all about. Of course, like any other celebrity event, this festival too had its share of star gazers who had turned up to see the festival members comprising of Jaya Bachchan, Rajiv Menon, Nandita Das, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Suhasini Maniratnam, Revathy and other stars present in the audience. The festival members were also the jury for selecting the winners of the ‘60 seconds to fame’ competition. It was a one-minute film competition on the theme of Disability - An Inclusive Society.
Jaya Bachchan released the festival book and CD, and Anuradha Mohit, National Human Rights Commission, received the first copy. She said, “Usually the human rights protectors are interpreted as people with very little to do in arts and culture” and commended the efforts of Ability Foundation in making this festival possible. She also called for the need of accessible films, which can be viewed by all, irrespective of their disabilities, and declared the festival open.
The crowd then took the break to settle in the back rows and in the balcony to enjoy the films. The Czech film, ‘Jumping Over the Puddles Again’ was the first film to be screened. It is the story of a boy, a horse trainer’s son, who wants to follow in his father’s steps. He contracts polio and is confined to a wheelchair. He overcomes his hurdles, with the help of his friends and gets on the saddle. It was a simple and touching story. The language, though alien to viewers, did not curb the enthusiasm of the audience. Of course, the English sub-titles did help in understanding the conversations. But, the gusto with which the audience cheered and clapped for the boy each time he tried hard was infectious, and you almost prayed quietly that the boy would get up on the saddle.
This quality of the audience was something that was seen on all the four days of the festival. Frankly speaking, I was a wee bit skeptic when I turned up at the venue on 8 July. It was a weekday and 9.30 in the morning, I expected a thin crowd. I groped in the dark aisle and once my eyes had got used to the darkness, I could see heads on all sides. And from then on, it was movies, movies and more movies.
There were good movies, intense movies and sad movies too. But, they all had depictions of disability in them, in one form or the other. They all touched our hearts at some point. This is what made them similar. The fact that we were all there to enjoy and discuss those movies brought about camaraderie between us. Mr.Greggor Kern, Director of the Munich Disability Film Festival ‘The Way We Live’ attended the festival on all the days. Talking about such festivals, he said, “Disabled people have the same dreams and hopes as we have. It’s just that they have more difficulties than us in realising them. This is what our festival is all about.”
All the films were from countries like Germany, Iran, Italy, France, Japan, Poland, Sri Lanka, and India, of course. The film ‘Little Angel’, directed by Somaratne Dissanayake, from Sri Lanka was one of the films, which went well with the audience. It is a film about a Sinhalese boy with childhood trauma and speech problems and his friendship with a girl from the Tamil community. “Though the film was mainly made to address the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, I wanted to feature disability as part of the storyline”, said Mr. Dissanayake, when asked about the film and its perspective. He also said he had plans of doing more films on disability. He called this festival ‘a good initiative’ and wanted to plan such a festival in his country to sensitise the people there.
The other film liked by many was the Marathi film ‘Devrai’. It is the story of a schizophrenic struggling to come to terms with his illness. It portrayed beautifully the struggle of a person caught between his two worlds, one real and the other imaginary, and the situation of his family too that tries hard to help him. The audience lauded the Directors Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar for “presenting the experiences of a schizophrenic as honestly as possible.”
Most of the films had Directors’ interactions happening at the end. Each was an enriching experience by itself. The portrayal of disability in the film, the Director’s perspective and the audience’s perspective were discussed. As stated by Paresh Palicha, a Jury member and a journalist, “Festivals like this will go a long way in helping inclusion”. So true were his words. The theatre had ramps for people on wheelchairs to come in; all the other language films were sub-titled in English. The Sinhalese film even had captions in Tamil, which thrilled the audience in Chennai.
Before each movie began, four or five of the one-minute films which made it to the finals, were played. Some were good, some were touching, and some were raw but touched you with their powerful messages. On the last day of the festival, 10 July, the awards were announced. The best film prize was awarded to ‘Becky’ directed by Madhi and Thiagarajan Kumararaja. The subtlety of expression and its simple, straightforward message touched the audience and obviously, the judges too.
It was a very simple awards ceremony and one of its kinds. It would probably be the only awards ceremony that ever happened, where some of the award winners came casually dressed in shorts and T-shirt and the people giving away the awards were equally casual. It was clear that the focus was on the films and disability and not on the other superfluous details.
Actress and Vice-Chairperson, AbilityFest, Revathy, while talking about the fest said, “Films are a powerful medium that provoked thoughts that have changed the thinking of many. So, it was natural that we thought of a film festival screening films based on disability issues to make it a platform to discuss and understand the attitude of the media towards disability. Also, through holding the ‘An Inclusive Society’ competition, I have made my personal statement.” She said that she would have been even happier if the reach would have been better and if they had full houses running. But she was sure that it would happen the next time.
On 11 July, Ability Foundation conducted a workshop aimed at sensitising the media towards disability. Some of the main points discussed in this workshop attended by prominent activists, media people and N.G.O.s, were: correct usage of language pertaining to disability in the media, authentic portrayal of disability, accessible films, and using media and multimedia to take the disability movement forward.
Some of the interesting views, suggestions and questions, which came up in the course of the workshop, were:
The communication through films should strike a balance between the audio and video, so that everyone is equally taken into account.
On the whole, it was an out of the ordinary experience. Never did I think that watching movies could enrich me so much. After attending the festival and seeing the power of the film medium, I am sure that even if the above-mentioned suggestions were implemented slowly, it would still make a big difference in taking the movement of disability forward.