The ReelAbilities film festival has, for 10 years, worked to bring stories featuring characters with disabilities to Pittsburgh audiences. But before coming to the city, the festival originally started in 2007 in New York.
The festival is now international, with events in 18 cities including Pittsburgh, thanks to local nonprofit Film Pittsburgh.
Kathryn Spitz Cohan, the executive director of Film Pittsburgh, dreamed of bringing ReelAbilities to her city since one of her colleagues founded it, but initially believed Pittsburgh was too small.
“For that first festival, we worked on putting it together for a good 16, 17, 18 months,” Spitz Cohan tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “There was a lot of legwork — where are the places to do it? Who would our partners be? But here we are 10 years later and it’s so incredibly amazing to get to this point. It’s such a great way to celebrate people with disabilities and for people to learn.”
The 2022 ReelAbilities festival will take place Sept. 7-11 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse at Point Park University. The festival will feature over 25 films, both feature-length and short, with in-person and virtual screenings. Film Pittsburgh hosts an after-party each night after the film screenings for the in-person shows.
Spitz Cohan says it was difficult for her to pick a single film she is most excited about, but was able to narrow it down to the opening night feature The Specials, a French film starring Vincent Cassel, and the Saturday night headline film The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic.
The Specials dramatizes the story of Stephane Benhamou, a real-life Parisian who runs a shelter for young people with autism who have been turned away by the health care system. The Blind Man Who Did Not Want to See Titanic is a Finnish thriller that follows a man who journeys to find his long-distance girlfriend. The film gained some attention for its lead actor, Petri Poikolainen, who, in real life, lost his sight and mobility due to multiple sclerosis.
After the showing on Saturday night, Spitz Cohan will host an event called ReelTalk with local cinematographer Kevin Cannon.
The festival features a variety of documentaries, including Amazing Grace, a look at a musician diagnosed with the polio-like disease Acute Flaccid Myelitis, and imperfect, the story of a theater troupe made up entirely of disabled people putting on the musical Chicago.
Spitz Cohan says the response to the festival varies depending on each viewer’s own life experience.
“It’s different depending on who you are. If you are someone with a disability and you get to see someone like you or someone with your disability on the screen, it’s just amazing,” she says.
One of Film Pittsburgh’s board members is in a power chair, she adds, and says that one of last year’s films featured a lead who was also in a power chair. “She wrote an article for us about representation in film and mentioned this film, where she said it’s like seeing herself on the big screen. It’s so rare.”
In addition to the representation, Spitz Cohan says another important piece of feedback that she’s received over the years comes from audience members who don’t know what it’s like to live with a disability.
“What I hear from them is, ‘Thank you for opening my eyes,’” she says. “It’s not always that you’re learning in the traditional sense of learning because if a film is fiction or narrative, you’re just enjoying a film about people because that’s what it is. A film about people. And that’s the goal.”
ReelAbilities Film Festival. Wed., Sept. 7-Sun., Sept. 11. Pittsburgh Playhouse at Point Park University. 350 Forbes Ave., Downtown. $15 per screening; $75-150 for festival pass. filmpittsburgh.org/pages/reelabilities