February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM), and in honor of it I’m speaking with Ellie Pierce, director of ReelAbilities Boston, the disabilities film festival taking place this month. The festival runs throughout Massachusetts from Feb. 19 to March 2. For JDAM in past years I’ve spoken with Allegra Stout, community organizer for people with disabilities, Eric Niemi, Transitions to Work graduate, Todd Finard, real estate developer, and Ben Soloway, who leads tours in Israel for people with disabilities.
Tell me about this year’s ReelAbilities Boston festival.
We’re now in our fourth year of the festival, which is co-presented by the Boston Jewish Film Festival. Our theme this year is “Homage to Film,” and the opening reception is at Gateway Arts on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. Our opening night will be at Emerson College, where we’re screening “Little World,” a documentary about a young boy who travels the world in a wheelchair. We’ll have special guests, including Richard Bernstein, who was born blind and is a Supreme Court justice in Michigan. Jason Harris, who is on the autism spectrum and an advocate for mental heath and disability, will also be joining us. The festival has grown a lot over the past four years; we’ve almost doubled in size. We’re also having a mini-fest in and around the Springfield JCC, and screening as far north as Marblehead and as far south as Plymouth.
What are you personally looking forward to?
I’m looking forward to meeting the filmmakers. I connect with the films, but then when I meet the people behind the films it really brings it to another level of appreciation. Michael Rossato-Bennett is the writer-director-producer of “Alive Inside,” which won the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for U.S. Documentary last year. The film is about people with Alzheimer’s disease and how music therapy can help ease their suffering. And Kathy Leichter’s film, “Here One Day,” aims to reduce the stigma and isolation of mental illness, raise awareness and help families find the support they need. I’m also really looking forward to meeting Will Lautzenheiser, a local filmmaker and screenwriter who received a double arm transplant. He chronicles his story in “Stumped.”
This is Jewish Disability Awareness Month. What makes the film festival a uniquely Jewish event?
The festival grew out of Manhattan’s JCC because of the leadership role the Jewish community played in it; it became part of the festival’s footprint. Locally, Temple Shir Tikva in Wayland and the JCC of Greater Boston are hosting films. And when Justice Bernstein visits, he’ll be hosted by three different synagogues. There are so many connections with the Jewish community of Massachusetts, from Springfield to Newton to the North Shore. We even received a North Shore CJP Grant. We’re really excited to be able to connect with innovative programs, have this cultural exchange and shift the narrative. It’s about inclusion. This isn’t a festival about living out faith, but a festival that helps build empathy throughout different communities.
The Oscars are held at the end of this month. Which film would you like to see honored?
I would like to see “Boyhood” honored. It’s not related to disabilities or Jewish in its subject matter, but it’s so engaging. It’s what we hope for when we think about filmmaking.