doc talk | peter keough

ReelAbilities Film Festival aims to spark dialogue

A scene from “Marathon: The Patriots’ Day Bombing.”
A scene from “Marathon: The Patriots’ Day Bombing.”

“Our biggest challenge is just getting people out to see the films,” says Mara Bresnahan, director of the sixth annual ReelAbilities Film Festival, Boston, which runs Wednesday through April 6. “I think people automatically equate disabilities with something scary that they don’t want to think about very much. And they think they are going to be lower-quality films. They don’t realize how beautiful or well done these films are. They have been in major film festivals. I mean, our opening night film, ‘Life, Animated,’ was nominated for an Oscar.”

“Life, Animated” (screens Wednesday at the Museum of Science), Roger Ross Williams’s documentary about communicating with an austistic boy through Disney animated movies, is among Bresnahan’s favorites of the 10 she has programmed for this year’s festival. Her selections are intended to engage and spark dialogue between non-disabled people and those with disabilities.

One film that might test a viewer’s capacity for sympathy is Michael Gitlin’s “That Which is Possible” (April 2 at the Museum of Fine Arts, with artists from Gateway Arts participating in a discussion following the screening), about a community of painters, sculptors, musicians, and writers who create art at the Living Museum on the grounds of a large state-run psychiatric facility in Queens, NY.


It appears a happy community bubbling with creativity. Examples of the artists’ work — sculptures made of coat hangers, vivid, semi-surreal paintings, stirring, rousing music composed and performed on site — make it seem like the salon of an especially creative experimental collaborative. Patients lead tours explaining their work and the history of the facility. The sense of tranquility is embodied in the facility’s cat, who stretches and strolls, purring with satisfaction.

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Later in the film, though, some of the crimes that brought the patients into the facility are revealed.

“They are convicted criminals,” explains Bresnahan. “Most have schizophrenia but they are doing amazing art and are benefiting from this rehabilitative process of creating art. Then they relate their back stories and they talk about their mental health issues and what they did to get themselves in that situation, and you might not want to talk to them any more. But you’ve already had this positive perception of them, and so the film challenges one’s preconceptions and it opens the conversation about the terrible toll of mental illness and the need for appropriate care.”

Also artfully engaging an audience’s empathy is James Spinney and Peter Middleton’s “Notes on Blindness” (April 3 at the Brattle Theatre; a Skype discussion with directors will follow the screening). In 1983, after many decades of deteriorating vision, the writer, academic, and theologian John Hull became almost totally blind. He decided to make a recording of his observations – sometimes with the participation of his wife — on his situation.

The filmmakers dramatize Hull’s experience with reenactments of these recorded conversations and the events they refer to, with actors lip-synching his and his wife’s conversations. Far from being artificial, these sequences, with a subtle and effective employment of light and darkness, draw the viewer deeper into Hull’s experience.


At first he is preoccupied with making adjustments so that he can continue to pursue his life of teaching and writing. How is he going to teach classes and read? The only audiobooks, he discovers, are bestsellers and romantic novels. So, to keep him up to date on the latest “big” books on various disciplines, he enlists a number of people to record them.

He stays involved for some time in these activities and also learning the “tricks” of how to get around and perform ordinary tasks until the last vestiges of sight vanish. His visual memories of the people and places he loves are fading. He must confront, at last, what it means to be blind. And so must the viewer.

Another film that can be relied on to grip audiences emotionally, especially in Boston, is “Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing” (April 6 at the Somerville Theatre, co-presented with GlobeDocs and Spaulding Rehabilitation Network; discussion to follow with survivors of the bombing, moderated by Globe reporter Eric Moskowitz). Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern’s documentary, produced by HBO in association with the Globe, focuses on several spectators who were gravely injured in that shocking terrorist attack, and their long road to recovery. Not only does the film involve us in the struggle of those who must reclaim their lives from disabilities, it reminds us that it only takes a moment of tragedy to put us in a similar situation.

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Peter Keough can be reached at