Jess Orcsik — Focus on Ability Short Film Festival

Jess Orcsik
Good things come from Down Under. One in particular—the Focus On Ability Short Film Festival—celebrates films examining the abilities of people with disabilities. Now in its 10th year, the festival is the brainchild of Martin Wren, CEO of Nova Employment. Wren’s inspiration for the festival was to end bullying in schools by educating youth through personal stories. To help spread the word, he teamed up with famous Aussie actor Paula Duncan, known for her work in film and television and her support of people with disabilities. The festival encourages people of all talent levels, including first-time filmmakers, to create films that inspire and educate. Last year, 210 films were submitted from 19 countries, and the winners screened across Australia as well as New York, New Zealand and Africa. Recently, ABILITY’s Nancy Villere caught up with Jessica (“Jess”) Orcsik, the festival’s international marketing and entertainment ambassador and the daughter of actors Paula Duncan and John Orcsik. Orcsik spoke openly about the festival’s mission, its inspirational message, and her own journey as an actress and educator who grew up in the limelight.

Nancy Villere: How long did it take to launch the festival?

Orcsik: It took a while to build. My mum Paula Duncan, came on board several years ago. She is a very, very renowned Australian actress and has spent most of her life dedicating her time to supporting disabilities and many different charitable organizations. She was working back in the ‘80s in Australia when people were still institutionalized with disabilities, so she spent a long time being an advocate and trying to shape change. So when she got involved in the festival, she felt like it was marrying her two loves, which was film and obviously supporting people with disabilities.

And then being her daughter, watching her and the people we met really inspired me to want to make a difference. So Martin Wren brought me on board. I’m in the film industry and work internationally. I live here in Los Angeles and have spent the better half of about 14 years traveling back and forth, I think he wanted my help in branching us out into that international market and to really use this incredible power we have with film to change thoughts and perceptions of people around the world when it comes to people with disabilities. And rather than focus on what people can’t do, we focus on what they can do. We focus on ability and the strength and power behind that.

Villere: What’s the format of the festival?

Orcsik: You can enter just a five-minute short film that can be shot on your iPhone or be professionally shot. We welcome all people from any experience. That’s the beauty of the festival. Your film just has to showcase the achievement or ability of a person with a disability. It can be in a short film or a documentary, but other than that, the creativity is open. We just want to see inspirational real stories about incredible people.

Villere: So the team or individual producing the film doesn’t necessarily have to have a disability?

Ocsik: As long as the film celebrates that. We’re inclusive of all. We obviously would love filmmakers who have disabilities; we’d love writers and cinematographers with disabilities. We’d love you to get involved. But we’re inclusive, because our message is bringing unity together and making sure we all have the same message of inclusion and diversity and using this to educate people around the world. So I think the beauty or the power within education is when we use the word “inclusive,” all people are welcome.

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Villere: How does the judging work?

Orcsik: We have a large number of judges both Australian and international. They range from various different fields from casting directors, to directors, to producers, and members of Screen Australia, which is our big film commission in Australia. Essentially, they cast their votes. We watch a film in a specific category, say it’s a documentary category, and the specialist judges would put in a vote for five, four or three points for their top three or five films. And then the most votes wins. We try to be as fair as possible. That’s why we like to have a big array of judges, because obviously there are so many different things in a film we want to look at. We want to look at the story, the cinematography, maybe the writing, and the actor. Is there a young breakout actor with a disability who wants an opportunity to step onto the platform? Obviously that inspires us too.

Is it a true story about someone’s survival or achievements? We’ve had many incredible films submitted from across the world, including Africa. We’ve had films from India, America and Australia that are culturally-driven and various different other things. We have big school involvement across Australia, and we’d love to see that continue throughout the US and in other countries as well where schools get involved and tell a story. That’s incredible because we’re seeing more young voices speak up, which is the kind of change we want to see. We just vote on what we’re drawn to or what the individual is drawn to.

Villere: You mentioned categories like documentaries. How many categories do you have?

Orcsik: We’ve an international section, which would be one category, and a local section, and then within that there are subcategories: the most online votes, best documentary, best short film. This year we’ve introduced into our short film category best short film screenplay, so basically if you’re writing a short, and you’ve written this incredible story, we want to see the actual screenplay, and we’re going to offer some developmental writing programs to help develop more writers. Because when it comes to inclusion, writing is so important because writers write the stories and the characters, so we really want to see that aspect grow and be a focus. Especially to include people with disabilities in their stories.

Villere: How do most of the votes come in?

Orcsik: We either have votes in through our judges or online votes, so if you’ve entered a film, you can get all your friends and family to support you and vote online. We have multiple subcategories. Obviously best actor is another one. We’re very big on supporting actors with disabilities and getting them more opportunities in the industry. That’s something we would love to see grow.

Villere: All the entries are based on a short format?

Orcsik: Yes, short films and five-minutes in length. This year we have a great new sponsor with Screen Producers Australia, and they’re going to be mentoring a young producer of either a documentary or a short film. We want to see these shorts be developed into feature film content, and we want our prizes to encourage and develop future talent and build bigger projects. We’d like them also reinvest prize money to create feature-length projects or expand a short film story into a feature film. This is the kind of thing we want to promote more of so we can see a bigger progress in our film industry with inclusion for people with disabilities not just within Australia but around the world. We need to expand the types of stories we tell, not just the sad, the negative, and the struggles. As a festival, we believe the power in what people can do is inspirational, and I think it’s nicer for us to focus on that aspect. I think in life we always focus on the negative. That’s what we’re drawn to. We have so many incredible positives in life, and if we can help each other to focus on that, I think we can inspire people around the world. That’s what I know my team would want for us and certainly what I want for us in the festival.

Villere: Your mother & father were actors? What was that like growing up? In the States there are a lot of issues growing up in a public family. What was that like in Australia?

Orcsik: It’s the same. (laughs) If you’re in the public eye, you don’t have a lot of privacy. In my case we traveled and moved a lot. My parents were very, very famous in Australia, not here, so when they met, they met on a massive television show at the time and obviously became an on-screen and off-screen couple. When I was born it was big news, because they were married, like, three times, for example, once on-camera as characters, once off-camera for a public wedding, where all their fans got to go to, and then a private wedding. That’s how famous they were. So I was photographed at one day old in the hospital with a big thing written about me. People ask, “How was that?” And I’m like, “Well, I didn’t really know anything different, so I guess it was what it was.” But it’s certainly been interesting moving to the States.

Jess Orisck and Paula Duncan

Villere: So in the States, nobody knows your past.

Orcsik: Yes and that’s fine. It doesn’t bother me. I still don’t act because of fame. I act because I love it, because I like to—haha!—inspire people. That’s my view. I’ve seen and done a lot that not every person has. In this life where you turn on the TV and you see something dark and scary almost every day, people need to feel inspired. People want to be inspired and feel good about themselves. People want to see and hear stories they can identify with. They want to feel like they can achieve anything. That’s why I’m an actor. That’s why I’m a producer. That’s why I work in the arts. That’s why I teach. That’s why I work for a film festival. I want people to feel like they can do and be anything they want to be, despite whatever holds them back on the inside. And that’s got nothing to do with disabilities, that’s just people. People are very tough on themselves. Everyone has something they struggle with. That’s why I do what I do.

Villere: What do you think the number one fear of most people? This is something I just heard on a talk show, and the person said there was a survey done recently on the number one fear. What do you think it is?

Orcsik: Speaking in public? I don’t know. I guess it would be the average of people saying they don’t like to do things in public.

Villere: I think we’ve all heard it’s speaking in public or fear of heights.

Orcsik: Oh, heights!

Villere: This person said it’s a fear of birds attacking.

Orcsik: (laughs) No, I don’t have that fear. I’m not afraid of heights either. I get a little nervous speaking in public, but I’ve had to speak in public since I was a kid, on talk shows, on TV. It doesn’t scare me. In fact, I kind of like it, because it means people are listening to me, which means I can do something powerful. I was watching the Oscars last night and thinking, “That’s why people get up and make certain speeches.” Frances McDormand didn’t get up there and make her speech because she wanted people to skim over it. She wanted people to—again I’ll use the word—be inspired. She wanted to inspire all those women in that room and in their homes, she wanted them listen to what she had to say. When you have the floor, it means people are going to take note of what you have to say. And if you have something valuable to say, something worth listening to, then it’s a nice place to be heard. It’s a hard thing for most people to want to be seen and heard. I worked really hard on it. (laughs)

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Villere: Looking at your life in Australia as a public notable and at your life here, which do you think is a happier space in your psyche?

Orcsik: There isn’t a happier place. It’s just my journey. I have a home and birth country, and I’m building a bigger one here. This is only the start of my journey here. It’s an easy thing to think you can compare them, but in essence, I was born there and lived 30-odd years of my life there, whereas here, I’ve just started. I’ve gone back and forth for 14 years. But I’m really starting the next journey, and who knows what the next 20 or 30 years will bring? We could have a very different conversation in 20 or 30 years. There’s no happier place. It’s just a different part of my life, a different stage, and a different journey.

Villere: I ask because there are many people who feel they would be happier with fame or with money, and in a sense, you’re able to live both lifestyles. I was wondering if you look back at yourself and ask, “Am I happier in that particular reality?”

Orcsik: (sighs) I think with more fame and money comes more complications. I think it’s harder to live a regular life. In saying that, there is also a power that comes with fame and money. With great power comes great responsibility. I want to be heard, so I fight to have a platform where people will listen to what I have to say especially if I really want to create change in life. I want to be remembered for something bigger than myself. I don’t know what that is. I just want to know that when people think of me, that’s what they think of. Fame and money help to build that platform, where people know you lent a hand in changing the world in some way, in trying to make it a better place.

But personally, it’s not everything. There’s no golden ticket. The personal struggles can be very real, which is why a lot of people don’t deal with it well and end up struggling with mental health and various other issues, because there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it. I think when it comes to me, I’m Jess. I’m an ordinary person. I’ve lived in an extraordinary world, and I’m OK with just being me, whether I have money or I don’t have money or fame, but obviously, with my dreams and my aspirations, it would be great to know I do have that on my side, so I can reach more people. That is unfortunately the way the world works.

Villere: I find it very inspirational. (laughter) Tell me about your mom and dad—the actors Paula Duncan and John Orcsik?

Orcsik: My mum has won seven Logie awards, which is the equivalent of about seven Emmys. My dad has been acting for his whole life and he runs one of the largest film and television schools for actors in Australia called TAFTA. I also run a film and TV school here for international actors and teach them all about how to work, live, survive and grow here and not go home crying because it doesn’t work out the way they thought it would. (laughs) Life in LA can do that. I’ve done that as well. It’s interesting. My family shaped me. And they’re very inspirational people. I’m grateful my mum opened me up to this world of hers, because I love it.

Villere: Do you have brothers and sisters?

Orcsik: I have a brother. He has nothing to do with the film industry whatsoever. I think he saw it and went, “No, that all looks like too much struggle for me. You guys can have it.” So he went into IT, does computer forensics and works for the government. He has a stable income. (laughs) But yeah, it’s an awesome thing. I always describe my family as dysfunctional-functional. Two actors in one household was a lot. They’re divorced now, but they’re the best of friends and have been for many years. I’m also pretty lucky to have that, too.

Villere: Whom do you love more?

Orcsik: I love them both equally! (laughter) They’re great people. You know, when I talk about my viewpoint, it comes from the experiences in my life. I think many people assume when they hear the word “disability,” even the general public, they go straight for what they can see—the physical disability. But the reality is that a lot of us in the world struggle with mental health issues, and those things aren’t always on the surface. For someone like myself, growing up I struggled with a lot of depression and anxiety. I still do, as I just started talking about it I felt it come on. (laughs)

When I was younger, I had issues with suicide. I became a youth spokesperson for youth suicide because I wanted to be a voice for other people who might not know how to speak about what they’re feeling. That was the hardest thing for me, that I couldn’t communicate my pain to other people. You couldn’t see my struggle on the surface, but it was there.

I speak about people’s struggles because we all have something in life that blocks us from living our life to the fullest potential. The reason I became so involved in being a voice for people is because I’ve gone through many different things in my life that I’ve been unable to communicate about. Either because people wouldn’t understand it or wouldn’t accept it. People sometimes don’t understand feelings of suicide. People think your being selfish but it’s because you feel you’re so alone, that you’ve got no one to turn to. It’s a very tough situation. We’re living in a day and age where we should be able to talk about things that happen to us and be proud of all the wonderful things that we do and experience, good and bad, because that’s who we are in our journeys and our stories. We need to communicate these things that are hardest for us and not feel fear of judgment because of it.

Villere: Did you find counseling, with a psychiatrist?

Orcsik: Yes. It was a dark time. I went to some family friends who started talking to me and through counseling I worked through it. I kept it hidden for a while.

Villere: How old were you?

Orcsik: Eleven. It’s very hard to communicate that to adults. But you work through it. My mum suffered with episodic depression where it would flare up if something happened in her life that could bring her down. I think maybe that transpired to me in my life. But you just have to keep going. You have to keep going until you can feel whatever the next stage is of your life. I guess that’s me with everything that I’ve done is getting myself to this point where I want to be a voice because I think people can make change. Look at Oprah, she inspires women all over the world. Ellen inspired gay women all over the world. This is how we create change, by speaking our stories and letting people know they’re not alone and inspiring other people to do great things and keep on fighting, no matter what.

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Villere: I’m glad you shared that.

Orcsik: Having gone through what I went through, I wish someone had spoken to me and told me I wasn’t alone. Do you know what I mean? I felt alone. So now I have a voice that can say, “You are a wonderful person. What you do is inspiring. Who you are is inspiring,” I would say that to one of my actors. It doesn’t matter to me your race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or if you have a disability or not. To me you’re an inspiring person because of your story. And that’s my message. We all have the ability to inspire. And if we can instill that into this world full of violence and world war, it might be a better place.

I think what helps people get to another stage in their life is again knowing there’s someone else who’s willing to stand up and talk about their story. It’s not comparing my story to your story. It’s just saying, “This is my story, and this is why I do what I do.” If I can help make you feel stronger and help you achieve whatever you need to achieve in your life, regardless of whatever that is, then I’ve done my job. Then I’ve helped somebody. With my film and TV school, I would say that to one of my actors who’s struggling, who doesn’t think they’re good enough or fearful they’ll never achieve anything. I’d remind them how incredible and talented they are. It’s a nice feeling to have someone believe in you, and it only takes one person to believe in you in life for you to achieve anything. And it only takes one person to listen to you for you to know that you’re not alone. And it only takes one person to say, “This is how I feel.” It’s amazing what that does for people.

It is sad not everyone has that skill, but that’s why those of us who do have a voice and aren’t afraid to be seen and heard must to express ourselves. Especially to people who tell you “You shouldn’t say this,” “You shouldn’t do this.” “But that’s exactly when I want to say it!” (laughs) There are enough people in the world being told they can’t say something or can’t do something. That’s what we spend our lives focusing on. We spend a lot of time in life telling people what they can or can’t do. For me, I like sitting on the other side and saying, “Why don’t we try the opposite? Why don’t we say ‘You can’ and see what kind of energy that gives someone?” If you can go home with a smile on your face and feel good, that’s great. That’s such an achievement.

Life experience goes a long way.

Villere: But it’s good to get some input.

Orcsik: Yes, exactly.

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