New Documentary Shows How Disabled Characters Have Fared over the Decades
CinemAbility is a new documentary looking at how films and television shows have portrayed disabilities through history. Combining interviews with actors (including Geena Davis, Gary Sinise, Marlee Matlin, and William H. Macy) with supporting film clips (from titles such as Freaks, Forrest Gump, Edward Scissorhands, and Game of Thrones), director Jenni Gold shows some of the ways that the media and popular culture have impacted society's attitudes toward people with disabilities. The film recently screened in Los Angeles, and is slated to debut at the Regal E-Walk 13 in New York City on September 20, followed by screenings in Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale. (Check the film's website for more details.)
But that's not all her work is about — Gold is currently developing a suspense thriller, a romantic comedy, and some family films, and she's a director member of the DGA. In 2001, she founded Gold Pictures to handle development and production of her own projects. Via email, we asked her about CinemAbility, her career, and what filmmakers can do better in the future.
StudioDaily: Tell us a little about how CinemAbility began. Was there a specific event that led to you making this film?
Jenni Gold: It's hard to believe, but it's been eight years since this whole thing began. It started with a couple filmmaker friends of mine coming to me and telling me they wanted to make a film … about me! The type of film where they follow you around with a camera all day and show what it's like to be Jenni Gold, and I remember thinking, "That sounds awful." Besides, I'm not important. I remember telling them, "If you are interested in doing something about disability, I have a better idea," and right then I pitched them a film documenting the changing portrayals of disability in film and TV. They said no, they weren't interested, because that idea sounded like too much work. I told them that I might do it one day. That idea became CinemAbility and, well, they were right. It was a lot of work. But it was worth it.
Why do you think so many recognizable stars and filmmakers agreed to be interviewed?
We have been extremely fortunate to have garnered the kind of support we have from Hollywood, and it would be hard for me to speak on everyone's behalf, but I think a big part of the reason we were able to draw their support is due to the fact that these people are caring individuals who want to participate in vital social discussions, especially one that may improve the inclusion of people with disabilities. Once I explained my passion for film and TV and what CinemAbility was about, they were all in and we are very honored to have their continued support.
What are some common stereotypes filmmakers indulge in that you think contribute to regressive attitudes toward the disabled?
Most of the common stereotypes these days are characters whose disabilities serve a purpose to fuel their motives. They are usually written to be defined by their disabilities when in real life it is not the main focus of one's life. In the superhero films, still today, the bad guy is often a disabled person who seeks revenge or will risk everything to become cured. The Amazing Spider-Man did this with the character of Dr. Curt Connors, aka the Lizard. Iron Man 3 even had the vice president of the United States become a traitor in order to "heal" his daughter. This reinforces the notion that nothing is worse than a disability.
You have been in a wheelchair since the age of 7, and yet you’re an active filmmaker. Have you faced discrimination, pigeonholing, or other barriers to success in the entertainment industry due to your own disability?
I think that having grown up with a disability has been an asset to my directing, because I learned how to communicate, observe, and get things done despite the obstacles. While I was in film school I realized that my path would not be the same as the others who could get a job as a PA and work their way up. I needed to write scripts that I could control and then produce so that I could hire myself as the director. The numbers for working female directors in Hollywood are very low and in the DGA, to the best of my knowledge, there are only two directors with visible disabilities — me and Ben Lewin. Ben is very talented and had a huge success last year with his wonderful film The Sessions, which he wrote and produced independently. I think most working professionals with disabilities understand that you have to create your own opportunities because there are barriers.
Have we reached enlightenment in the 21st century? If not, have we made good progress? And do you have any advice for filmmakers who’d like to treat these topics with more sensitivity in the future?
Have we reached enlightenment? I'm afraid not. But have we made exponential progress in the 100 or so years film has been around? Absolutely.
Do I have advice for other filmmakers? When writing: add a character who has a disability to the world you are creating because that is more like real life. But don't rely on stereotypes to define them. Give them full lives and don't make the disability the focus. For example: I am a woman, a blonde, a producer, a writer, a DGA director, a football fan, a valley girl, and a wheelchair user. If I were filming an action film, I'd be spending my day thinking up the best shot for when the car explodes! I don't spend time thinking about disability. Well, because of this film I am now — but usually I don't. 🙂
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