Founded in 2007 at the JCC Manhattan, the ReelAbilities Film Festival seeks “to promote awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different abilities.” Over the years, the festival has expanded to 14 cities across North America, including Boston. In its sixth year in the city, the ReelAbilities Film Festival Boston is co-presented by the Boston Jewish Film Festival. This year’s partners and co-sponsors include CJP, Ruderman Family Foundation, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School and Rita J. & Stanley H. Kaplan Family Foundation.

Boston’s festival opens on Tuesday, March 29, at the Museum of Science with the Oscar-nominated documentary “Life, Animated.” Following the screening will be a discussion and book signing with writer Ron Suskind, a journalist for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal who wrote the memoir upon which the documentary is based. The film is also part of a trio of documentaries featuring sibling relationships, including “My Hero Brother” and “Rachel Is.”


“Life, Animated” is a charming portrait of 23-year-old Owen Suskind, an autistic man for whom Disney films were a lifeline. When Owen was 3, he suddenly lost his language and much of his cognitive function. “It’s like we were looking for clues to a kidnapping,” says his father, Ron.

Life, Animated
“Life, Animated” (Courtesy Boston Jewish Film Festival)

“Life, Animated” is a beautiful film full of fanciful animation that captures Owen’s imagination. In what is otherwise an upbeat film with a happy ending, Owen’s brother, Walt, interjects with moments of hard realism; for example, Walt contemplates a future in which he is Owen’s sole caretaker.

Many of the siblings in “My Hero Brother” share similar concerns. This Israeli documentary, brilliantly directed by Yonatan Nir, tells the inspiring story of a group of young adults with Down syndrome who trek through the Himalayas for two weeks with their siblings who do not have Down syndrome. The project was instigated by Enosh Cassel, a co-producer of the film, who decided to get to know his brother, Hannan, better by taking him on a trip to Nepal. Other families with special needs children wanted to have a similar experience, giving rise to the “My Hero Brother” community that organizes these tours.

“My Hero Brother” (Courtesy Boston Jewish Film Festival)

The film is enriched by the evolving relationships between the siblings. By the end of the trip, one young man jettisons his impatience with his older brother who has Down syndrome, coming to understand him. The group’s arrival on the summit is a hard-won victory and a triumph that is not soon forgotten.

“Rachel Is” is filmmaker Charlotte Glynn’s rough-and-tumble tribute to her sister with developmental delays. Like Owen Suskind, Rachel is about to enter what may be a bewildering young adulthood; she yearns for independence and her mother needs a break. Glynn tracks her mother’s frantic efforts to find an appropriate living situation for Rachel, but resources are limited and Rachel has a deadline. While the documentary has the jumpy feel of a home movie, Glynn has achieved something quite sophisticated by telling her family’s challenging story with empathy and love.

Rachel Is
“Rachel Is” (Courtesy Boston Jewish Film Festival)

Autism comes into play from a different angle in “Asperger’s Are Us.” The film follows four members of a comedy sketch troupe of the same name in the two months leading up to their final show. The only known comedy troupe whose members are autistic, Asperger’s Are Us has a dedicated following in the Boston area, where they have performed to much acclaim. The key to the film’s success is how each of these young men is portrayed as a unique and memorable individual.

The foursome met as teenagers at a summer camp for kids with Asperger’s syndrome. They are very clear their humor is not for everyone—they make jokes for their own amusement—but there is a touch of the absurd, reminiscent of “Monty Python,” in their sketches that appeals to more than other “aspies,” as they call themselves. Noah, the group’s leader, is clear that these performers are not looking to be supported as a cause. “Some people have booked us out of a sense of guilt or charity,” Noah says. “We always accepted their money. But ideally they like us because we’re funny.”

“Asperger’s Are Us” (Courtesy Boston Jewish Film Festival)

In 1983, theologian John Hull, a professor at the University of Birmingham in England, lost his eyesight. He documented his painful journey and the epiphanies along the way in a series of taped diary entries. The result is the wonderful documentary “Notes on Blindness.” Like “Life, Animated,” this film is adapted from a memoir. Hull published his book, “On Sight and Insight: A Journey into the World of Blindness,” in 1997. The actors who play Hull and his wife actually lip sync their taped words with amazing precision, giving the film a sense of immediacy.

Hull initially works around his blindness by recruiting friends and colleagues to record the academic books to which he no longer has access. But he sinks into despair as he understands that not only has his vision left him, so have the visual memories of his three children and wife. A trip to Australia to reconnect with his homeland and visit with his aging parents is disastrous; everything has changed and so has his relationship to the past. Over time, Hull comes to accept his blindness. “I knew if I didn’t understand blindness, it would destroy me,” he says.

Find the full ReelAbilities Film Festival schedule here.