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The ReelAbilities Film Festival creates access online

Ron Hessing pictured with his parents in "Once Upon a Boy," one of the films featured at the ReelAbilities Film Festival, which is going online this year.
Ron Hessing pictured with his parents in "Once Upon a Boy," one of the films featured at the ReelAbilities Film Festival, which is going online this year.Handout

Spring usually brings a bounty of film festivals — the Salem Film Fest 2020, the Global Cinema Film Festival, the Boston Underground Film Festival, the Independent Film Festival of Boston, the Boston Turkish Film Festival, and the Irish Film Festival among others. But this year they have all been canceled or postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak

One exception is the ReelAbilities Film Festival (March 22-April 2), a program of features and shorts by and about people with disabilities presented by Boston Jewish Film. It will livestream its free screenings and post-screening discussions online.

Here are some of the outstanding documentaries being offered.

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Stereotypes — racial, gender, ethnic, and others — provide Hollywood with a facile shorthand for its narratives, often with invidious results. The disabled are one such category, and Salome Chasnoff’s “Code of the Freaks” (streams March 24 at 6:15 p.m., followed by a panel discussion) shrewdly analyzes the history of this phenomenon beginning with Tod Browning’s “Freaks” (1932), the once reviled and now classic thriller set in a carnival and starring actual sideshow performers.

Because it depicts the title characters sympathetically and without condescension, it is one of the few films that gets a positive review from Chasnoff’s interviewees — critics and other experts who are themselves disabled. Others include “Coming Home” (1978), in which Jon Voight plays a formidable paraplegic Vietnam war vet, and the sui generis “The Terror of Tiny Town” (1938), a musical Western with an all-dwarf cast.

But most of the films under consideration, including Oscar winners such as “The Miracle Worker” (1962), “Charly” (1968), and “Rain Man” (1988), they determine to be exploitative because they reduce disabled characters to comfortable caricatures — inspirational victims, dehumanized villains, and even sexual fetishes.

There are no stereotypes in Israeli director Uri Levi’s “Once Upon A Boy” (streams March 31 at 7 p.m., followed by a panel discussion); only genuine, determined, and loving family members with strengths and flaws. They must unite around 10-year-old Ron, who has cerebral palsy. He’s sweet, smart, and funny; the disability has diminished his mobility but not his spirit.

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But Ron’s parents and his twin brother are struggling. His mother, who had previously lost her older brother and mother when she was just a teenager, tries to cope with anxiety and anguish. His father brims with confidence to the point of denial and is almost bullying in his insistence that everyone share his optimism. And Ron’s brother is mostly silent, but his eyes are fraught with grief and fear. The tensions increase when Ron undergoes an operation in the United States that might improve his condition. It is excruciating, Ron’s suffering is heartbreaking, and though his parents are resolute and supportive, their stress and conflicts reach a critical point.

Though Ron and his family face crushing challenges and tragic circumstances, they at least have the resources of their upper middle-class status to draw on. Not so the disabled children in Philip Knowlton’s “Kupenda” (streams on March 22 at 2 p.m.; a discussion with Knowlton, Cynthia Bauer and Leonard Mbonani, co-founders of Kupenda for the Children, one of the film subjects, and Julia Spruance of Waypoint Adventure follows the film). They are from villages on the coast of Kenya where many still believe that disability is caused by sinful parents, witchcraft, or demonic possession. Disabled children are ostracized, treated by ineffectual traditional healers, and sometimes murdered in infancy.

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Kupenda for the Children (“Kupenda” means “love” in Swahili) and the Gede Special School, Kenyan institutions providing care, education and advocacy for disabled children, are trying to change that. To call attention to their cause they enlisted three students — Hassan, who is deaf; Merceline, who has cerebral palsy; and Fumo, who has cognitive difficulties — to participate in an expedition to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

At 19,000 feet, it is Africa’s tallest peak. The trek takes several days, and at the highest elevations the wind howls and the temperature can fall below zero. At times it looks like some might not make it to the summit. In the end they confirm their school’s mantra that “disability doesn’t mean inability.” It’s a sentiment that is catching on, as the Kupenda model is being replicated in other countries, including Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Zambia, and Haiti.

Go to www.bostonjfilm.org/reelabilities.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.