“Access” is a buzzword these days, but Superfest International Disability Film Festival does access on a whole different scale. Creating a film-viewing space for forty wheelchairs, offering captions for those who can’t hear, American Sign Language interpreters as live narrators as well as audio describers for the visually impaired, Superfest serves an audience not exactly catered to by the traditional movie house. What’s perhaps most interesting about this year’s Superfest selections, according to executive director Liane Yasumoto, is that they’re made by increasing numbers of disabled directors, producers, and screenwriters. A week before the festival’s 27th opened at Gaia Arts Center in Berkeley, SF360.org spoke with Yasumoto on what Superfest gets about disability that the rest of the filmmaking world hasn’t quite caught onto yet.
SF360: Tell me how the festival started.
Liane Yasumoto: The festival started in Los Angeles in 1970, but it didn’t always happen every year. It’s the 27th showcase — not our annual. This is our 9th year in Berkeley.
SF360: When did you get involved?
Yasumoto: I’ve been involved for all of the nine years it’s been in Berkeley. I’ve been involved with Culture! Disability! Talent! [CDT] for over 15 years. I’ve been the executive director of CDT since ’98.
SF360: What are you most excited about presenting this year?
Yasumoto: They’re all so great. What I’m really excited about in general is that among this year’s group of award winners there’s a diverse representation of films that cover different types of disability — including blindness, deafness, Down syndrome, learning disabilities, polio, muscular dystrophy, environmental illness, and more. The 13 award winners are really diverse in terms of types of disability. It’s hard to pick favorites.
There are two local filmmakers who won high awards. One is called “Outsider: The Life and Art of Judith Scott.“ It was produced and directed by a San Francisco filmmaker, Betsy Bayha — it’s a documentary, a beautiful tribute to one of the Bay Area’s most unique artists. She had Down sydrome, was deaf, and did not speak, yet she created some critically acclaimed sculptures out of found objects. She used to do her artwork at the Creative Growth Center, in Oakland. She was in an institution for 35 years, and after that, with the support of her family and friends, she created this beautiful art work that has had exhibitions nationally and internationally.
The other is “Headstrong: Inside the Hidden World of Dyslexia & ADHD.” It covers subjects that aren’t always widely covered. It has personal stories of a diverse group of individuals. One of the executive producers, Ben Foss — his personal story of his learning disability and being in law school, now starting his own nonprofit — is in there.
SF360: Many of the best films in the art houses in the past few years have been about people with disabilities. How are the films in Superfest different?
Yasumoto: I was thinking about how Superfest is different — at least the films that are entered and the films that do well — this year there were 45 entries from 10 countries, with a three-tiered judging process to choose the top 13 award winners. I think that in news stories, media in general, and film representation of people with disabilities, it seems to fall in two ends of the spectrum: either it’s the pity-evoking story — touches your heartstrings because you feel sorry for them for some reason. At the other end of the spectrum is the inspirational hero — people who overcome — the inspirational hero who, wow, climbed Mt. Everest, not that that’s a bad thing. But in our community, we don’t use that term — “overcome” — it implies something is wrong with having a disability; that you have to “fix” it. When in fact there are so many other stories about the reality of living, having the disability experience as part of your everyday life, your identity, just like being of a different ethnic background.
In general, the stories in Superfest are more realistic, not so much on both extremes: heroes, or helpless, or pity-evoking. Just like other ethnic film festivals, there’s a bit of everything. This year, we have coincidentally a lot of documentaries. But it’s not like that every year, you’ve got experimental works in different genres. It’s exciting to see all the films that come in every year. We’re thrilled that some filmmakers will be present.
SF360: Tell me about the range of films in the festival. Any that are particularly unusual, or new?
Yasumoto: One thing that has really stood out to me and what’s really changed over the years and is really exciting is that there are many more filmmakers with disabilities, either as directors or producers. This year, there’s a great representation of directors and producers who happen to have disabilities. It used to be the person with disability was either the actor or subject, as opposed to producer, director, screenwriter. The Best of Festival award-winner, “Epidemic,” polio survivor Neils Frandsen was the producer and director. It’s really empowering for the person with the disability to be able to tell his own story.
SF360: What do you attribute the change to?
Yasumoto: There’s more opportunity for people to have access. I’m excited to meet and talk with the filmmakers this weekend…. I don’t think at all that they’re going to stop with this one film; they’re going to keep creating. There are international disability film festivals popping up all over the world. I hope we can have better communication and a better network. We communicate one-on-one, festival-to-festival; but it would be really great to have a huge network of disability film festivals to share ideas and film submissions, contact info — spread this around so no one has to reinvent the wheel.
SF360: Who are your audience members?
Yasumoto: A lot of the audience is made up of people with disabilities — they look for it and embrace it, have it on their calendar. Also, we get people from the general film community. We’re building our audience slowly, with more media coverage. Hopefully, it’s broadening.
SF360: How do you make the festival more physically accessible to audiences than most festivals?
We always choose a venue that’s wheelchair accessible. That’s difficult, because we do have up to 40 to 50 wheelchair users at any given screening. We’re at a new venue, the Gaia art center, in downtown Berkeley this year. It’s one big open space that allows for lots of wheelchair users to attend comfortably. I would hate to turn any one away! In addition to that, we have hired audio describers who provide live descriptions of all the background visuals because blind and visually impaired people can hear the dialogue but don’t get the essence of what’s going on (on screen) in the movie. It’s free for the audience to use the audio description and they get that live. On Saturday, we have had a request to provide an American Sign Language interpreter for all the films. (Most of them that day are captioned, and the ones that aren’t, ASL interpreters will be interpreting.) That evening, we’ve got our awards event, which we will also have ASL interpreted…. That reception and awards ceremony is free and open to the public. Tickets to screenings are $5-$20 sliding scale, per day, and only sold at the door.
SF360: I’d love to hear more about CDT.
Yasumoto: We’re the nonprofit organization based in Berkeley that presents Superfest. Our mission is to transform disability stereotypes by providing access and opportunities for performers and filmmakers with disabilities. Superfest is one of our primary events, but our other disability culture event is in the fall every year — Ever Widening Circle — and it’s an evening that celebrates disability culture through the performing arts. This is our annual fundraiser that we partner with another group on, The World Institute on Disability, based in Oakland. It’s a public policy training organization. This is also the ninth year for Ever Widening Circle. Our goal is to showcase worldclass performers with disabilities. In the past, we’ve had headliners like Blind Boys of Alabama, Diane Schurr. This year, the event will be held at the Oakland Marriott on October 10. Also, we periodically hold open mics — inviting performers or artists to show their talents and get critiques if they want.
CDT is staffed by me, the director, an administrative assistant, and we hire consultants — and lots of volunteers. Primarily volunteers run it. The board is all volunteer, and contributes greatly. We’re small but steadily growing … and like it that way. Slow, steady growth has been our motto. Little by little, we’re getting recognized and getting more funding
SF360: When did you start becoming interested in film?
Prior to becoming disabled — I’m a C3/4R quadriplegic — prior to my [car] accident, I was involved in acting and performing. I’ve always been a ham. A few months before my accident, I was taking a class at City College and got a part in a workshop production for the Asian American Theater Company. I always dabbled in performing. It fell into place when I graduated in social welfare. My mentor told me about CDT, asked me what I wanted to do after graduating. I said, ‘I think I want to be a teacher or a counselor, but my secret dream is to be a movie star.’ She said, ‘Are you serious?’ I said, ‘I think so — I’m an Asian American female with a disability; I want to make sure we’re represented more realistically and accurately than we have been in the past.’ She said, ‘You’ve come to the right place,’ and gave me a CDT brochure and invited me to the next meeting. I started volunteering. She was a talent agent at the time. I was signed with Stars talent agency in the City, and I have done some work through them. I have really enjoyed the experience of being on set, mostly doing industrial-type films. It’s always been such a great learning experience for me, and for people working on the set. They haven’t been necessarily roles specifically to teach somebody about disabilities. I did an ESL video, and the role didn’t call for someone with a disability; it was a teacher role — they just thought having someone with diverse background — disabled and Asian [would work well]. I learned a lot, and hopefully will maybe ease some people’s fear and apprehension about people with disability. Unfortunately, I can’t do it as often as I like because my passion really lies with making sure CDT stays afloat and grows in all ways. And that takes a lot of time, so as much as I love to audition and act, I’ve chosen not to do that as much. But I love it.
Another media experience I had was that I was given the opportunity to have my own talk show on Oakland’s government TV channel. I jumped at the opportunity. But what was really interesting about that was, I thought about it, went into the office and told the executive director: ‘You know, I live with disability, work in field of disability. I don’t want to have a talk show just talking about disability.’ I thought long & hard about it. He said, ‘I didn’t mean for you to have a talk show about disability, you can have it on any subject you want.’ Basically, it was giving me a lot of creative freedom. ‘You can pick the topics, choose your panelists, and it’s just that we want to see more diverse representation. You can call it whatever you want.’ I’ll never forget it; it was a breath of fresh air. What I decided to do was topics that I was interested in — sports, art, and one on children, just a handful. It was a volunteer position, but they offered for me to do it as often as I wanted. I chose broad topics and thought it important to have one member of each panel be a person with disability. It was a super opportunity and lots of fun.
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