Reaching a major milestone, the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge celebrated ten years of challenging and highlighting disabled filmmaking talent. With over 600 films since its inception, the awards were held at the Cary Grant Theater at Sony Studios drawing celebrities like Jameela Jamil and Peter Farrelly. ABILITY Magazine’s George Kaplan interviewed some of the nominees and presenters in attendance on the orange carpet.
This year’s overarching theme, romance and passion for filmmaking, was definitely in the air. Seeing the disabled filmmaking community in full force and networking, it was hard not to feel inspired. Among the presenters were “Russian Doll” and the soon-to-be-released “Across the Spider-Verse” actor, Danielle Perez, Stephanie Nogueras of “Killing It” and actor and fashion designer, Natalie Trevonne.
“I owe a huge debt to the Disability Film Challenge.” said Perez. “Nic [Novicki] creating this space where people can be seen, I can be seen. I can have community, I can connect with producers and writers and other actors. This community is so important to my success and to all of our success. As we become more successful, we’re then able to say, ‘Oh, I want to bring them along. I want to give a role to them. I want to give them an opportunity.’ We all get to rise together. That’s what’s really important.”
Trevonne added “The way I’ve seen it evolve is that so many more people are seeing themselves represented and wanting to get involved. Every year, the number of films just increased and increased. And you can tell that the excitement of wanting to be a part of the entertainment industry and really see ourselves is growing. And that’s what I love most about it.”
On the films themselves, Nogueras said “I’m hoping that when other people view these films, they’ll see that there are stories that they weren’t aware of. It’ll open their minds, open their soul. They’ll start to get curious and get to know these people who just happen to have a disability, and that’s all. They’ll become more comfortable and familiar, more welcoming, and provide more opportunities, at least I’m hoping so.”
Sweeping three major categories, “Rain in my Head” took home Best Director for Chrissy Marshall, Best Actor for Layne Appfel and Best Film.
“This is my second year doing Easterseals Disability Film Challenge.” said Marshall. “I always loved coming here and meeting all the other disabled creatives. I was really fortunate to meet a woman named Marie [Alyse Rodriguez], and she has her own film production company. And she introduced me to the lovely faces of [cinematographer Camilo Godoy and assistant director Sebastian Gonzalez] here, who helped me bring the whole project together. And then I’ve worked with [actor] Sophia Morales before, so I already knew that she’s an amazing talent that I wanted in all my films, honestly. And same goes for Layne. They’re both so incredibly talented, and I’ve seen them work in a bunch of different mediums, and they nail it every time.
The main point of our film is deafness is not a monolith. And people who grow up with different experiences and different accessibility needs have different access to sign language and language in general. And also as a queer woman myself, I really wanted to dip my toes into getting some queer representation as well.”
In addition, the films “Smash or Pass”, “Unlucky in Love” and “Leap of Love” won Best Editing, Best Writing and Best Awareness Campaign respectively.
“We’re in such an exciting space right now. The world is finally taking note that there is a lot of talent, a lot of humor, and a lot of very unique perspectives within the disabled community.” mused director and actor of “Leap of Love”, Madison McLaughlin. “I think that people being able to create their own content, especially on TikTok and YouTube, has been really cool to see. Studios are starting to take note. So, I would love to see more content creators that are disabled, more actors, more people behind the camera that are disabled, get these really big, incredible deals with these huge studios because I think it’s about time that representation is here.”
McLaughlin continued, “Our film is a satire comedy. It really was born because my sisters and my best friend and I are all obsessed with reality dating shows, and we’re all really frustrated at the lack of representation there. And so, we decided what would a reality dating show look like with disabled people. But if the producers were just maybe well-intentioned but definitely not well educated. And so that’s how the satire scene was born.”
The film challenge not only showcases talent, winners walk away with some amazing prizes: mentorship sessions with entertainment executives and talent, $2000 grants furnished by NBCUniversal, Dell computers, a one-year subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud and IMDb Pro, and screenings at Academy Award-qualifying festivals.
“It’s really all about changing the way people see disability and television and film is what that’s about.” said president and CEO of Easterseals Southern California, Mark Whitley. “When you consider the power of television and film, I think the film challenge has helped to leverage and to put people with disabilities out front. And so many people have been involved in the film challenge and then also went on to get jobs in front of and behind the camera.”
After seeing the awarded films at the night’s festivities, the future of disabled talent looks bright. And with the involvement of major studios sponsoring each award, it looks like they’re finally catching on.