Sydney Film Festival Screenability Festival Programmer Rebecca McCormack Talks About Disability on Screen, Authentic Representation, and More in This Interview

Screenability is the Sydney Film Festivals inclusive program that places people with disability at the center of the narrative and boosts the participation of underrepresented groups in the screen industry. Andrew caught up with Screenability programmer Rebecca McCormack to discuss disability on screen, programming an inclusive festival, exploring authentic representation on screen, and more in this deep dive interview.

Screenability launches on June 9th with screening of Reid Davenport’s Sundance award-winning film I Didn’t See You There, Geelong-based theatre company Back to Back’s highly acclaimed film Shadow, and the New York drama Straighten Up and Fly Right, alongside three short films made in NSW.

To find out more about the festival, jump over to the Screenability section of the Sydney Film Festival website, and book your tickets.

It’s fantastic to be able to talk to you about the Screenability program. Part of my interest with the Screenability line-up is that personally I’m mobility disabled.

Rebecca McCormack: Yes, there’s a really great documentary we’ve got in the program which is a really good perspective by Reid Davenport [called] I Didn’t See You There. It’s filmed from a really personal perspective. I really hope it does well, because when our films do well, hopefully they get to the Travelling Film Festival. Reid Davenport, he has cerebral palsy, and he won the documentary directing award at Sundance for this film.

Wow. I always get a little bit envious of both Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals because I sit here and I go, “Oh my gosh, the lineups are always so, so brilliant.” And the work that gets put into the programs is very inclusive. From a WA perspective, we don’t get that as much over here, which is a bit of a downside. But as you were saying, when they do well, they travel and that’s a good thing.

RMcC: Yes. And that’s part of having a team and people like myself that have lived experience, that are really passionate about elevating people with lived experience, and creatives who share their experience, to try and get that out there.

Where did your journey with Sydney Film Festival start?

RMcC: I actually came on board as an intern. My journey began back in 2019, I started as a Screenability intern.

How have you been able to manage over the past couple of years?

RMcC: There was a lot of challenges. Obviously we had to, as a festival, pivot with those challenges and adapt quite quickly. And then again in 2021, we had to adapt as well. And that obviously affected filmmakers; we saw a change in the way people were wanting to share their experience when we saw submissions and trying to create a program. When 2020 came, from an inclusion point of view, it meant that we could actually reach a wider audience as far as people with access needs. There were ways that people could join in online and see, and even people that were interstate. I don’t know if you could join in from WA?

I did. It was wonderful. It made me feel like I was part of everything, which was wonderful.

RMcC: See, I love that. From a programming point of view, I was able to say, “Look, we can reach that.” That is something that been at the center for me, I’ve been wanting to try and keep as much of that going. Because I think there’s so many people geographically as well as with access needs that can’t always get out, and there are a lot of people in the community that still have some mobility issues to be concerned about.

What does that look like in practice now heading into 2022? Does that mean more online sessions or accessibility sessions that have subtitles or difficulty of hearing titles for online?

RMcC: Our accessibility has always been something we look at when we look at the in-person screenings, and a lot of that has to do with the theatres and the venues. We do an audit. One of the good things that came out of the shutdown in 2020 were the upgrades that were happening to venues. All [of] the Screenability program [is] screening with open captions. Many of the venues have the induction hearing loop systems or the FM radio systems available. But it’s always worth checking out the venues for their specific information details when booking. The audio descriptions are available. The venues are wheelchair accessible. But again, it’s worth checking your individual sessions to find out further information and also check out our website. The Sydney Film Festival website has got a really good page about the venues as well. And you can speak with a member of our team when you call the booking line. And the festival accepts companion cards as well, of course,

That’s fantastic. It’s heartwarming to be able to hear that all this work is getting put into making sure that accessibility options are there. Have you found with all of those accessibility options that other festivals around Australia have been following suit as well?

RMcC: I think in general, the festivals are trying to do what they can. And I think that the arts community are always trying to work. I think people are starting to pay attention. Definitely Melbourne is really working hard on that. They have an access coordinator. Sydney Fringe Festival does as well. But again, it’s working with the venue. You do what you can, but the venues have to do the work. And sometimes you’ve got older buildings, and it’s hard to navigate with those structures.

Of course. What was the initial criteria for curating the works for Screenability?

RMcC: When we look at the criteria, we really want to give creatives living with a disability the opportunity to put their narrative at the center of the story. The Screenability program is open for feature films, documentaries, and shorts of any genre or subject matter. But the filmmakers need to meet eligibility for the program. So this requires there to be at least one key creative – the writer, director or producer – that identifies as having lived experience of disability.

And that means that [a film] like Shadow can then shine in this kind of field.

RMcC: Yeah. That’s a really important film. They all are important. It’s been [a] really important dialogue and hopefully that opens up a lot of conversation to our audiences when they see that. They’ve just come off the back of winning the Ibsen Award for the theatre production. I’m so excited to be bringing it to Sydney Film Festival audiences and to the Australian audiences. I hope people get out there and see it and really take on board the messages that are in the film.

Disabilities are presented in all different forms, whether it’s intellectual, physical, hidden, all kinds of disabilities, when it comes to programming a festival like this, how do you ensure that they’re all presented correctly?

RMcC: It’s really important and something I’m very mindful of. It is of course about keeping a balance and looking at the program as a whole. There are a lot of talented filmmakers with disability producing fabulous and important work with stories that are informed from their lived experience. And sometimes a narrative has nothing to do with the creative’s disability, but it’s a really well-made film with a strong story. It can be a real challenge to narrow the list down, I can tell you.

Ultimately, it comes down to the films and what stands out, and how they work together. I would love there to be more space and opportunities and platforms for creatives living with disability and chronic illness. Audiences are paying attention. They want to see new stories from different perspectives.

Last year, the Screenability feature Beautiful Minds won the audience favourite award in the feature film category. And this year’s program already has some international award winners. Straighten Up And Fly Right took out an audience favourite internationally as well.

Straighten Up and Fly Right
Straighten Up and Fly Right

I’m very excited to see that one. It sounds just brilliant.

I assume that when you’re watching these films, you’re watching them at home by yourself trying to see if they fit the criteria. What’s it like watching a gem like that for the first time at home and knowing what you’re going to be able to do with it?

RMcC: Yeah, that’s true. It’s really exciting when you have that moment where you find a gem and you get very excited. And then you’re waiting until this time when you can share it with people because you can’t talk about it before. It’s just like finding a piece of gold, and you’re like, “This is fabulous.” You’ve got this program that has come together. Then you’ve got probably a handful of films as well, you’ve got to choose which ones. But there are these ones that stand out and you just you can’t wait to share them with the public.

This is such an exciting time when the program is launched and then you just want people to see it. It’s just so good when there are those films with so many strong lines that people can relate to. You know that moment where you see yourself and others will see themselves.

It means the world to the audience. It means the world to the people who see themselves on screen. With the short films that you have, how do you decide which feature to pair them with?

RMcC: That’s part of the process of programming. This year, it’s come together beautifully. We always have fantastic shorts that come through Create NSW. You get an idea, you get a feel for the short, and you get a real understanding for the features. You see how the story, the subject matter and an understanding of the narrative and how the messages will work together, and what audiences will be looking for. It’s important to keep the narrative and the audience together in your thinking.

I imagine that’s a hard thing, to imagine what the audience might be like, because it’s going to be varied. It’s going to change each time. How do you keep track of who your potential audience might be?

RMcC: That’s a good question because you want to think of a wider audience, and we want to reach as many people as possible. Obviously, you want to keep in mind people from [the] community that can relate and we want to be inclusive because obviously access and inclusion – that’s going to be at the forefront so that people can access the cinemas as well. We want everybody to come as well. It’s really about finding quality films, feature films and documentaries that are going to connect with people and that tell the story.

I’m excited to see what the reaction is for these particular films. I can’t keep singing the praises of Shadow enough. I think it’s the best film I’ve seen this year so far. I was just stunned by how brilliant it was. And I can imagine the audiences are going to have an even better time, a full audience watching that particular film. It’s going to be brilliant.

RMcC: Yeah, it’s fantastic, isn’t it? It’s great to talk somebody else who’s seen it. It’s very engaging. It’s really thought-provoking, and it opens up some great discussion points, don’t you think?

Oh, it does. The line about “When artificial intelligence becomes the main thing that we have, that everybody will be intellectually disabled” is something that I won’t be able to shake for a long time, just thinking about it.

RMcC: It’s so smart and it’s beautifully made, and the last scene.

Oh gosh, yeah. It’s beautiful. I loved it so much.

RMcC: I love Sarah, she is this strong female protagonist. She just is so smart and takes the lead.

I do love the way that she rebuffs the guys as well.

RMcC: She does. And she does that so well, with such strength. It’s very well made.

This is a very personal question, so don’t answer it if you don’t feel like it. But when you first saw yourself on screen, what did that feel like? And what was the film?

RMcC: That’s a really tricky question. Do you know why?

Why is that?

RMcC: Because I have seen such poor representation of some of my condition. I know that. And when I see myself, it may not be with what I’ve gone through. You know what I mean? So I really connected with Straighten Up And Fly Right, actually. It’s hard to find the word. Validation is not the right [word] – the sense of belonging, or that you matter. Do you know what I mean

Yeah. Feeling seen or feeling like somebody understands.

RMcC: Have you ever had a film where you felt where you saw yourself?

See, my disability is a fairly new thing for me. And so I haven’t seen it as much on screen because pain is so hard to represent. It can be so difficult to present authentically or properlyit’s a transient thing. It’s hard. And this is where it makes representation a very difficult thing to get correct. Because it’s so different for each person, and how my experience is compared to how somebody else’s experience is might be polar opposite.

RMcC: Absolutely. Part of the reason why I do this is I know how important it is to try and find that lived experience from an informed perspective. Because so often, it doesn’t hit the mark.

I see people try and do it. And I even see people with lived experience – either the writer is, or the actor has something, but I don’t know if that’s something they can actually put accurately on screen, because it’s really hard. I think they’ve done a pretty good job in Straighten Up And Fly Right with pain and how people will look at you.

This filmthe more you talk about it, the more I need to see it.

RMcC: You know, there’s this little girl in there. Even the way people are on the street – if you do have any kind of pain and joint issues, it’s challenging – the difficulty when you have to bend down and all that stuff.

Which for most people, it might not be a problem. It’s the power of films, and [it] comes back to empathy, being able to put people into the mindset of somebody who is experiencing something similar to that. And it means the world. For my parents, they don’t understand what I go through. And so when I talk to them about it, they don’t have a reference point. But I’ve been able to find written pieces or TV shows that have similar kinds of things and show similar experiences to what I have, and they can understand from that. And that’s what I think Straighten Up And Fly Right sounds like it does. It gives that same kind of experience of understanding and that empathy.

RMcC: The Reid Davenport documentary (I Didn’t See You There) was interesting that he started filming where he’s living, but then he goes back to his hometown which is in Bethel, Connecticut, which happened to be the hometown of PT Barnum who was the Greatest Showman. He starts filming because a tent goes up outside his home in Oakland, California. And he then starts reflecting on the legacy of the freak show and history of circus and then draws a line of where we are with disability today. And that’s also another thought-provoking one. Then the fact that he then revisits his hometown in Bethel, Connecticut, and then reflects on that — that’s very interesting.

I Didn’t See You There

Wow. I know when The Greatest Showman was coming out, there was a lot of discussion about the history of the freak show and the history of what that actually meant. That was something that came back into my mind during some of those scenes in Shadow where they’re talking about what has happened to disabled people in the past, and what continues to happen. The connection is sad, but the way that it’s presented, at least the history of the way that disabled people is treated in Shadow is delivered in a way that isn’t continually depressing or dour.

I’ve been drawn to films about disability that aren’t entirely depressing, because that’s one of the things which I think that people expect, that they’re always going to be sad or they’re always going to be a depressing film when no, that’s not how my life is. And that’s not how most people who live with a disabilitywe’re not depressed all the time.

RMcC: That’s correct.

Can you talk about the positivity that might be in some of these films?

RMcC: Yes. There’s a great short, one of the Create NSW shorts which Madeleine Stewart has made, Inspire Me. Similar to Shadow, it also meditates on that idea of people living with disability aren’t there for inspiration either. We’re not there to be pitied. You’re there to be yourself. I think that’s important. We’re just living like everybody else.

I’ve really enjoyed this chat with you, Rebecca, thank you so much. And thank you for organising and helping curate these films and bringing them to a wider audience. It makes me a little bit jealous that people who live in New South Wales get this every year.

RMcC: You know, that makes my day, hearing you say that. When you are here on your own, watching them all – I take it very seriously and really want to put together something fantastic for people to see, and for the filmmakers to find a wider audience, and try and elevate the narratives of all people with disabilities so that eventually, we aren’t needing to talk about inclusion and creatives or anybody from underrepresented communities. We just all are under one umbrella.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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