Superfest Film Festival Gives Disability Community a Voice
Editor’s Note: In 2012, the Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University partnered with LightHouse for the Blind and took over Superfest, the longest-running disability film festival in the world. As the associate director at Longmore, Emily Smith Beitiks had the opportunity to take on the producer role for the 2013 festival and continues to head the project today. Next month, Superfest celebrates its 33rd festival providing a platform for the disability community to showcase their voices and diverse experiences through film. Beitiks talked to Wheel:Life about her experience with disability as a non-disabled person, this year’s wheelchair riders films, and how Superfest brings the community together.
My mom has had multiple sclerosis since before I was born, so disability has always been part of my life. She’s a wheelchair rider. That’s what led me to want to do this work. As I was introduced to the activist community in the San Francisco Bay Area as an adult, I began to recognize that even with disability being so very close to my life, I still held a degree of ableism that I had internalized. I believe film is a powerful means of challenging that.
When watching Superfest films, I often wonder how much seeing those powerful images of disability would have affected me growing up.
Maybe I wouldn’t have been embarrassed when we had to ask for an accessible entrance for my mom and instead realized how messed up it was that there wasn’t one. Recognizing that I had been part of the problem and wanting to work hard to fight against it is what motivated me to be part of this.
A Voice for Disabled People
The directors of both Longmore Institute and LightHouse for the Blind, who co-direct the festival, as well as all of the Superfest jurors, are all people with disabilities.
Ensuring this festival comes from the disability community has been core to our approach.
I get to watch all of the submissions we receive, but I’m not the person who makes any final calls. I’m not even on the jury, but I get to observe the trends that come and go. I also facilitate and moderate the juror conversations each year to encourage laying out what Superfest is about, what we are looking for, and oversee the process. It’s been an amazing opportunity.
We share Superfest far and wide. Beyond the festival, we do showcases in schools, community groups, and corporations, and use the films as a disability training tool. You can open people’s minds up to thinking about disability so much better through film because it’s exciting, captivating, and accessible to a wide audience. It allows people to get those disability lessons in an artful and powerful way.
Film Submission Criteria
We keep the criteria fairly wide because we want to encourage people to submit if they think their film could be a fit. We’re typically looking for films that have disability content in some form in the storyline, have a central disabled character, or are created with a disabled person in a key role.
One of the things that sets Superfest apart is that we aren’t just looking for polished, big-budget, beautiful films. We’ve accepted films from teenagers and other low-budget projects in the past because they were voices that needed to get out there. Those pieces won’t necessarily be given a chance otherwise because funds are not going to those people. We care about the story.
We have had filmmakers who screen at Superfest and say during the Q&A panel that we’re the only audience who fully “got” the film. Other festivals turned it down, and they came to Superfest and received an award.
We want the film that is Disability 201.
We’re not looking for surface-layer messages of “disabled people are like you and me.” We can do better than that.
For the first phase, we work with students with disabilities at San Francisco State University who are engaged in courses like feminist, critical race, or disability studies, so they already have that framework of thinking about representation in film. They watch everything with us to sort out the submissions we’d never screen at Superfest from the films that are promising. That usually brings it down to around 40 films from roughly 180.
For phase two, we invite jurors who are disability thought leaders. We look for disability studies scholars, disabled filmmakers, disabled activists, and people who’ve done a lot of work around representation.
We want as many disabilities represented as possible.
Having a racially diverse panel as well as being LGBTQ+ inclusive is also important to us. Typically, we have 8-10 people on the jury.
2019 Films Featuring Wheelchair Riders
Gaslit is this year’s Best of Festival Short. It’s about a woman who is a wheelchair rider, and it shows several short, strung-together vignettes from her life about the microaggressions she faces daily, from people trying to heal or pray for her to asking her if she can have sex.
The audience watches the woman go through these microaggressions that anybody with a disability has experienced way too many times.
It’s a beautiful, funny short. It’s the type of film where the filmmaker will say people laughed harder at Superfest than any other screening because the viewers are a room full of disabled people who live and breathe this every day.
Another film this year that features wheelchair riders is a beautiful dance piece titled Inclinations. We get a lot of dance pieces each year, but many of them don’t fit into the film category, or they’re showing that a disabled person can dance, but they’re still very restrained by the structure of normalized forms of dance. This piece is an example of bursting out of all of that. Alice Sheppard, one of the lead roles, is an amazing dancer and choreographer who uses disability as a creative force and aesthetic. The wheelchairs are an addition to the piece rather than something you’re supposed to forget about.
Our 2019 Best of Festival Feature film, CHUSKIT, is a fictional piece about a girl in a rural village in the Himalayas who gets injured and becomes paraplegic. She’s a very passionate, smart little girl and determined to continue her life the way she wants it to be. Her grandfather is a very strong patriarch, and in his mind, being paralyzed means she should stay in the house. She loves her grandfather, but she has to fight to get a wheelchair and find a way to get to school. It’s a lovely, honest journey.
Since we’re looking for Disability 201 kinds of stories, sometimes accepting foreign films can conflict with that. How do you show a film in rural India where a Disability 101 conversation marks progress over zero visibility at all? There’s still so much discrimination that a girl in this situation likely wouldn’t have the right to go to school. So, we are still looking for those stories but through an international context or powerful storytelling.
CHUSKIT is pushing our audience to learn and think outside of their comfort zone.
The film Song for Rent, After Jack Smith is a fun piece with drag performer Rose Courtyard — based on Rose Kennedy — who’s a wheelchair rider. It’s a great critique of queer nationalism with a wheelchair rider at the core of beauty queen imagery. This is the kind of film you won’t see at any other film festival but should.
The Disabled Actor Debate
We are very passionate about disabled actors playing disabled parts, but we don’t have a set-in-stone policy where we won’t accept films with non-disabled actors. CHUSKIT is an example of that. It was an amazing and tough conversation that the jury had to have because the main character is played by a non-disabled girl due to her injury happening around 25 minutes into the film. We wish that 100% of our films had disabled people in those roles, but there are some instances when we’re willing to lose that to tell a story that needs to be told.
We get so many great stories from anglophone countries, and we’re eager to push outside of that. We have a film this year, The Man of the Trees, out of Italy and Burkina Faso. It’s a documentary about a polio survivor with withered limbs, so he walks on his hands and knees. He’s a botanist and is personally responsible for planting over one million trees in his country. It’s a great disability story of someone caring about the environment and changing the world.
It’s the right kind of inspiration, not the inspiration porn we want to get away from.
For the last few years, we’ve sold out all of our screenings. Typically, that would mean there’s an opportunity to grow. However, we’ve surveyed the audience, and they’ve told us repeatedly that they don’t want it to become a weeklong or month-long festival because it would lose that intense moment of community. Superfest is two days every year where people get to come out, see their friends, watch films, and feel good. It’s very restorative. Many of the other instances we gather as a community are for protests or funerals.
Superfest is a weekend to come together and celebrate disability art and culture.
The first year Longmore took over with LightHouse, we hosted an event called the Dissies. We wanted a year to figure the festival out before we opened submissions, so we invited people to tell us about the films that have hurt them most. We asked them to name the films they watched as kids where they saw their disability on-screen and thought, “That’s wrong.” Then, we spent a horrible summer screening them to find the scenes that made us most want to throw a tomato at the screen and organized them into award categories such as Only Disabled People Should Be Able to Laugh at That, The Worst Portrayal of a Disability by a Non-Disabled Person Who Didn’t Do Their Research, and so on.
At the event, we played one-minute snippets of those scenes for the audience and invited them to vote for the worst ones. I’ve never been more terrified about an event because it could have been a very depressing night. People were paying money to come see films that hurt them. It could have been a disaster, but it worked out how we’d hoped it would.
It was an amazing moment of catharsis where people were able to hiss and laugh at things that had previously hurt them.
They reclaimed their power and talked about how those films do not represent life with a disability. The Superfest jury has that same feeling every year. It’s so powerful to watch people get to have a voice in choosing what makes a good film.
Editor’s Note: The 2019 Superfest takes place from October 12-13 in Berkeley and San Francisco, California. Tickets can be purchased at SuperfestFilm.com. Following the festival, many of the films are available for streaming for free on SFGovTV. Follow @SuperfestFilm on Facebook and Twitter for more viewing opportunities.
About the Author
Betsy Bailey has a diverse background that includes experience in marketing research, business operations, travel and culinary writing, and playing volleyball professionally overseas.
Betsy has been writing for Wheel:Life since January of 2017 and thoroughly enjoys the process of getting to know her interviewees. She also practices parkour, speaks French fluently, and travels any chance she gets!