Celebrating Disability Culture: Interview with #Superfest2017 Judges

The following blog was originally posted on the Disability Visibility Project. Thank you Alice Wong for helping share our jurors' perspectives!

Superfest International Disability Film Festival is the longest running disability film festival in the world. Co-hosted by San Francisco’s Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired and the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State will take place this year from November 4-5, 2017. Tickets available now!

It takes a lot of work to organize a festival. I interviewed Karen Nakamura and Sara Acevedo, jurors for this year’s festival and asked about the process of selecting films from their perspectives. You can also check out my interview with Superfest judges from 2016. Please note: responses have been condensed and edited.

Is this your first year of judging? Tell me about your experiences judging this year. 

Sara: This was my first year judging and I loved the experience! It was so wonderful to be in community and get to meet so many engaged activists and scholars collaborating on this year’s panel. I always enjoy and seek opportunities to share experiences, perspectives, and interests with various disability community leaders and advocates. I am interested in knowing about what other people are up to in their work and I am often looking for ways to collaborate and expand my perspectives! What never ceases to amaze me is that regardless of our individual interests and specific projects, the majority of the people I share in community with seem to be working toward collective social, cultural, and political goals around disability. One of the highlights this year was to meet the team at the LightHouse for the Blind and to work closely with and learn from seasoned disability advocates and scholars of different ages, backgrounds, identities, interests, and so on.

Karen: This was my first time judging for Superfest. I’ve judged for other film festivals before, but being in a disability festival festival with a jury of my disabled peers was exciting and new. Usually, I have to hide some of my disability politics, but not at Superfest! It was great when we were all on the same wavelength (especially cringeworthy, ‘inspirational’ pieces) but also really great when we got into great conversations about what we wanted to see in the festival.

What is the most fun aspect of judging films for a film festival?

Sara: Sooo many fun aspects! I think that if I have to choose one, it would be the chance to hear from and integrate so many different voices on issues that remain contested. I am always interested in what others think about things that I am passionate about and I believe it essential to allow room for self-reflection and expansion in my thinking and in my work. We all engage disability history and advocacy in so many different and creative ways and I think this is partially informed by the fact that our gatherings often welcome so many different generations of activists and scholars; people from all walks of life, really –We are not a unified whole, we are diverse, we don’t all know each other, and we don’t all think alike or agree on every issue. This is, in my view, what makes our disability communities so rich and layered.

What is the most challenging aspect of judging films for a film festival?

Karen: The funnest bit is also the most challenging: there are too many great films out there and it’s hard to choose which ones to select for the festival. So we have to narrow it down so that it’s not only “films we like” but try to curate the festival so that we can see some themes start to emerge, or because we want to prompt some conversations within the community.

Sara: I think that there are films that still play with so many stereotypes and, sure, sometimes there is room for humor, and I also recognize that it can be exhausting to constantly face harmful tropes and negative perceptions about disabled embodiment and identity.

During your retreat this year with other judges, what were the discussions like about the films you viewed? What else did you learn during the retreat?

Sara: The discussions were so rich! I was delighted to be in a room with people with so much knowledge and passion for disability justice issues. I truly value the role of ancestors and elderly mentors in our movement as well as their experiences and guidance, which have and continue to pave the way for the younger generations of advocates and activists interested in the celebration of disability culture and the arts. I think that it is our responsibility to honor these historical and cultural legacies and to continue building paths toward collective liberation.

Karen: Hahaha, I think what happens in the screening room should stay in the screening room. We had great conversations about disability politics and identity, but I think those are best left internal.

Do you have a particular favorite or standout film that you feel strongly about? If there’s one film someone should see at Superfest this year, what’s your personal recommendation? 

Karen: I have many favorites, but the one film that I think everyone should see and will sponsor the most conversation is Deej.

Sara: Deej and In Crystal Skin were certainly my favorite. I must confess that aside from the inherent quality of both films, they truly resonated with me in two ways: 1) I am autistic and I love the way the film portrays one of the many forms of autistic embodiment and resiliency, and 2) I was born and raised in Colombia, where In Crystal Skin is filmed.

Why are film festivals like Superfest so important? What does it mean to you to have a festival focused on the lived experience of disability?

Sara: Festivals like Superfest help to bring not only awareness but also acceptance of the global disability experience. It feels extremely relevant to me to watch a film that portrays disability in Colombia, the country where I was born and raised, for instance. There are other festivals that center disability and the everyday lives of of disabled people in specific areas of the world and those are fantastic. What I love about Superfest, however, is that it brings together a multiplicity of bodymind experiences from everywhere,  and those lend further depth and richness to shared experiences of oppression and resiliency.

Karen: Films that are ‘about’ disability often appear in other film festivals, but often they are simply meant as inspirational or alternately, simply horrible — in order to emphasize the horridness of the disability category in some other place.  As disabled people, we know the complexity of our lives, bodies, and politics and that our situations cannot be simply reduced to homilies. That’s why it’s important to have a film festival that is curated by disabled people, for disabled people.

What are your thoughts on the lack of representation by disabled people in filmmaking (behind and in front of camera)? 

Sara: It is simply ahistorical and unrealistic to exclude an entire group of people from representation in film and the arts overall. This isn’t an isolated phenomenon, however; this lack of representation speaks to the overall exclusion of disability and disabled people from full participation in western modern societies.

Karen: There are so few disabled people who are filmmakers or talent — and this situation hasn’t changed significantly in the past several decades. We need to find ways to support a community of filmmakers as well as talented actors and actresses.

Why is disability an important issue to emphasize with Hollywood and mainstream media?

Karen: Because we exist.

Sara: Hollywood’s trend of casting non-disabled actors to play disabled roles continues to baffle me. Our various disability communities have been rather vocal about this form of invisibilization, yet very few high executives, producers and filmmakers care to address it. It is also true that many other socially oppressed communities have endured this kind of erasure. Regretfully, I have observed that although other contested identities have been increasingly centered in social justice debates, disability remains largely absent from these conversations.

Outside of films featured at Superfest, name one film you’ve seen that you think does a pretty decent job at disability representation.

Sara: Porfirio is a Colombian film that I definitely loved! The combination of magical realism and cinematic poetics as well as the relevance of the content in both cultural and political terms was stunning!

Karen: _Speechless_ isn’t a film but a TV series but I think it has potential. Certainly the directors and actors are trying to get things right, even as they know they have to modify some things for a television audience. Let’s hope more films and television shows emerge that have complex disabled characters.

Side angel photo of Sara M. Acevedo, a Mestiza woman wearing a green t-shirt that states "My other disability is a bad attitude".
Pictured is a Mestiza woman with big brown eyes and pale skin color. She is positioned at a side angle with respect to the camera and is wearing a green t-shirt that reads “My other disability is a bad attitude”.
Sara M. Acevedo is a neurodivergent mestiza, activist scholar, educator, and disability justice advocate born and raised in Colombia, South America. Sara is a doctoral candidate in the Anthropology and Social Change Program and is currently writing her dissertation. Her pedagogy and scholarship as well as her grassroots work invite a re-figuration of disability as a vibrant political and cultural experience while simultaneously challenging the medicalization of disabled people’s identities, especially those living at the intersections of race, class, gender expression, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and citizenship.

A front face photo of Karen Nakamura, An Asian women who's holding her grey and white beagle puppy.

Image description: photo showing Karen Nakamura, an Asian woman holding a small grey beagle puppy — her service dog, Momo, who is now fully grown. 

Karen Nakamura is a cultural and visual anthropologist at the University of California Berkeley. Her first book was titled Deaf in Japan: Signing and the Politics of Identity (2006). Her next project resulted in two ethnographic films and a monograph titled, A Disability of the Soul: An Ethnography of Schizophrenia and Mental Illness in Contemporary Japan (2014). She is currently working on the intersections of transsexuality and disability politics in postwar Japan.