Queer & Disabled on the Big Screen

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Wednesday November 1, 2017
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Two queer-themed films will be included in "Superfest: The International Disability Film Festival" this weekend. Superfest takes place on Sat., Nov. 4, at the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley; and on Sun., Nov. 5, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in downtown San Francisco. It's a co-production of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University and the San Francisco chapter of the Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

"The Mission of the Lighthouse is the full integration of people with disabilities into mainstream life," Lighthouse Executive Director Bryan Bashin said at the festival's press opening. "That's why we continue with Superfest." Bashin noted that Superfest was unique in that all the judging was done by people with disabilities. "We show edgy films not shown at other disability festivals."

One such film will be Andrew Keenan-Bolger's "Sign," a love story between a deaf gay man and a gay man with hearing. During its 15-minute running time, "Sign" shows viewers how the men first meet on a New York City subway train. As they get to know each other, Ben (hearing) struggles to learn sign language. Ben and Aaron move in together, face normal everyday life problems, break up, then find each other again on the subway, where they first met. It's a sweet and fanciful tale told entirely in ASL sign language. There is no dialogue of any kind in the film. The copy made available for viewing to the B.A.R. did feature a descriptive audio track for the blind, which is in keeping with the Superfest policy of making all films accessible to everyone, regardless of disability.

"Superfest is about recognition," said Emily Smith Beitiks of the Longmore Institute. "So many of the mainstream films on disability, even those winning Oscars, don't resonate with people with disabilities. They depict disability as tragic, as pitiful."

Superfest, Beitiks said, has higher aspirations. "Superfest aims to show authentic stories that come from the everyday, lived experiences of people with disabilities," she said. "The tragedies we show are of a social system that continues to create barriers that stop people with disabilities from reaching their full potential. When you tell these stories, this amazing thing happens when people in the audience get to see something that resonates with their own lives and experiences."

2017 marks Superfest's 31st year. As part of the selection process, 167 films from 31 countries were viewed. The judges narrowed their choices down to the 15 films that will be screened at the festival, including the documentary short "Mind/Game," the festival's second queer-themed film. "Mind/Game" tells the deeply personal tale of basketball star Chamique Holdsclaw, an African American lesbian who faced six felony counts, the possibility of prison and attacks on her character after she attacked her ex-girlfriend. Holdsclaw is also a suicide-attempt survivor. "Mind/Game," which will air on Logo TV, touches upon the stigma of overcoming a psychiatric disability.

Beitiks feels that sharing stories like these are immensely powerful for the disabled, and recalls seeing a disabled student, an amputee, crying at a past screening.

"The student wasn't crying because of disappointment with the pop-culture narratives about amputees, as an amputee himself he was already well aware of that," she said. "Rather, he shared that he had just never seen his story told onscreen before. That's what Superfest is all about, a place where the disability community can come together and feel that their experiences are about something bigger than what you may be feeling on the individual level."

All films at Superfest will be ASL-interpreted for the deaf, and audio-described for the blind.

More information: superfestfilm.com