Reelabilities 2017: ‘really big, really enlightening’ fundraiser

ReelAbilities’ Deb Pinger

ReelAbilities’ Deb Pinger

60 films, 13 workshops, with 28 nonprofits to benefit

When Deb Pinger stepped in as director of Cincinnati’s ReelAbilities Film Festival in July, she was taken aback by the level of interaction between the festival and the surrounding community.

“Nobody structures a film festival this way,” said Pinger. “But I loved what they were doing.”

Pinger, a former Cincinnati public relations executive and television reporter, was managing director of the Nashville Film Festival several years before returning to Cincinnati. The festival she managed there attracts more than 55,000 filmgoers every year. But in many ways, it’s not unlike the dozens of other medium-sized festivals that dot the North American landscape.

ReelAbilities is a different creature altogether. It’s smaller, to be sure; last year’s films drew 7,000 people, a figure organizers hope to boost to 10,000 this year. And instead of taking place in multiple venues around Greater Cincinnati, this year’s festival, which occurs March 9-12, will unfold exclusively at the Duke Energy Convention Center, downtown.

What really sets the festival apart, though, is that it’s not a showcase for Hollywood’s latest star-studded glitz or the earnest foreign films that will never find a home in your neighborhood art house.

This festival is made up of films by and about people with disabilities.

I know – the moment you saw that word “disabilities” you probably envisioned ReelAbilities as a collection of grim, reach-for-the-tissue movies. Movies that are preachy or tug at your conscience.

With ReelAbilities, though, it’s probably best to check your preconceptions at the door. “Our films are about disabilities,” said Pinger. “But to be accepted as part of the festival, a film has to actually be good. It has to be something people will want to see.”

Pinger mentions an Irish film called “Sanctuary.”

“It’s not what you think,” she said. “It features 12 actors with developmental disabilities. It’s funny. It’s full of music. It’s emotional and has all sorts of things going on in it – some highs and some lows.”

Another film that has begun to attract a cult following is “Spring Break Zombie Massacre.” Created by two best friends with Down syndrome, the story is everything its title suggests. Lots of blood. Lots of gore. And lots and lots of combat between zombies and the two friends, who also star in the film.

“The two friends had already begun making the movie when their brothers started a Kickstarter campaign to finance it,” said Pinger. “What they made is professional in every sense. In fact, we’re bringing them in to be there when we screen the film.”

If you want a hint of just how gory the film is, you can see a trailer at YouTube (search the film title). But don’t stop there. Nearly all the films on this year’s films have online trailers you can access from ReelAbilities’ online schedule.

It has taken a few years for ReelAbilities to reach this level of success. In fact, it took a few years to even get the festival to Cincinnati.

The first festival took place in 2007 as “ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival,” a project sponsored by the JCC of Manhattan. Films were screened all over metro New York, from Long Island to Westchester County.

Cincinnatians Jeff and Susan Harris were the festival’s national sponsors and encouraged LADD (Living Arrangements for Developmentally Disabled) to launch a Cincinnati edition. The first one in 2012 was so successful that organizers decided to move the festival headquarters to Cincinnati two years later.

Maybe it was the relatively low cost of living that spurred the move. Or the fact that a home in Cincinnati would allow the festival, which was eager to expand throughout North America, to be closer to other potential host cities.

All Susan Brownknight, now LADD’s executive director, remembers is that she was immediately intrigued by the idea of the festival being here and taking its message all around the nation.

“I was a new employee at the time, but I had a background in grassroots organizing,” said Brownknight. “The festival aligned with our strategic plan and our goals, so when they were looking for someone to lead the festival in 2013, I volunteered.”

Her life has never been the same.

ReelAbilities has become a sprawling event. This year’s festival will screen 60 films, more than double last year’s total. Thirteen free workshops will deal with everything from acting techniques and kemetic yoga to an open art studio hosted by Visionaries and Voices.

What’s most unusual is that each film has a host agency. Some you are sure to know, like Special Olympics or the Autism Society of Greater Cincinnati. Others, like May We Help? or Melodic Connections, are probably less familiar.

All share a similar philosophy – an eagerness to reach out and help groups of people who otherwise might fall between the cracks of society.

“We have 28 agencies involved,” said Pinger. “And they will take home 97 percent of the ticket sales for their films, which I think is really amazing.”

So yes, this is a fundraiser of sorts. A really big and really enlightening fundraiser. But underneath is the goal of humanizing and telling the stories of people whose experiences most of us may not know.

“This is about valuing human beings for who they are and looking beyond those kinds of distinction we usually assign to them,” said Pinger. “We just want to be human together. We all have a story to share. And with this festival we can share stories you might not have heard before.”

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