A Cinema Studies student at U of T, Linda Luarasi is keenly interested in media representations of disability and bodily deviance.  “I found myself noticing the lack of disability portrayals [in film], while also recognizing cinema’s role in representing disability in damaging and degrading terms,” she says. “As a disabled person and film lover this frustrated me, so I began to apply a ‘disability’ lens on topics I was thinking and writing about, like the comedies of the Farrelly brothers.”

We asked about what bothers her, what she’s learned, and what she’s looking forward to at The 4th Annual ReelAbilities Film Festival later this month. 

SDTC: What are the most irksome tropes you see surrounding disability/bodily deviance in film?

LL: There are so many, but for me a few stand out. For one, the use of disabilities, deformities, or mental illnesses as shorthand for evil or immoral inner character is as tiresome and unimaginative as it is damaging. Another trope is the paternalistic, feel-good films about disabled characters that exist or sacrifice themselves to teach their able-bodied counterparts to live life more “fully”. Think 2016’s Me Before You. They exploit disabled characters to pander exclusively to the emotions of able-bodied people, while being condescending or offensive to disabled viewers. And speaking of Me Before You, I’m disturbed by the constant association of disability with indignity and misery, and the countless stories about disabled characters “heroically” choosing death over a life with disability.

What would you like to see more of?

We need more representation of disabled people’s ordinary lives, as opposed to the sensational and melodramatic stories we’ve gotten used to seeing. We need to see characters like ourselves succeeding and failing at relationships, professional pursuits, and the sorts of aspirations that able bodied people also have. Films that are truthful about our social realities, and nuanced about how we navigate them. What’s partly at stake is that the more the experience of living with a disability is ‘demystified’, the more we can collectively challenge our anxieties and prejudices about disabled people. I believe that beloved genres like romantic comedies, historical dramas, and science fiction/fantasy would be greatly enriched by disabled characters.

What are your top three titles from this year’s festival?

We’ve got a great line up this year but my top 3 are:

Me My Mouth & I: I love this documentary because its subject, the charming actor/writer Jess Thom, brilliantly explores the relationship between disability, arts/theatre, and activism, and makes a case for their socially transformative power. It also weaves in important ideas about what it means to have an accessible film and theatrical practice that is inclusive of disabled audiences. I believe it conveys and encapsulates so much of what we’re trying to accomplish with ReelAbilities – honest and refreshing stories, by and about disabled people, delivered with inclusivity in mind every step of the process.

Unteachable: A poetic short film that is a testament to how we all have the ability to succeed in an education system that is inclusive and accommodating of our varied and unique learning needs.

Shakespeare in Tokyo: This short is an absolute delight; the lead actor Gerard O’dwyer’s charisma will make you grin from ear to ear. While its central message advocates for the autonomy of intellectually disabled people, the film is also a celebration of a disabled life lived with joy.

What do you hope audiences take away from your Film Criticism Panel?

I’m hopeful that, just as thoughtful critics, writers, and commentators from marginalized communities have made us more discerning about what constitutes authentic, ‘good’ representation versus representation that relies on sexist, racist, homophobic tropes, that our discussion will be helpful in that regard when it comes to onscreen disability representation. Audiences that have a more acute sense of what is ableist representation will, I hope, over time be more vocal about demanding better of content creators and the industry. Platforms like this panel are a fantastic medium to have the kind of discussions that benefit both able-bodied and disabled film lovers alike, and to encourage them to continue thinking meaningfully about disability and film.

The 4th Annual ReelAbilities Film Festival returns to Toronto May 24 – June 2, 2019, showcasing Canadian and International shorts, features, and documentaries about Deaf and disability cultures, and by filmmakers and actors with disabilities and/or who are Deaf. See full schedule here.