Disability Representation Takes Center Stage at Bay Area Film Festival  

Members of a panel are onstage under a screen projector.
Panelists discuss the role of disability representation in filmmaking at Superfest Disability Film Festival on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Berkeley, California. (Ronny Hu/Peninsula Press)

BERKELEY, Calif. – The 37th annual Superfest Disability Film Festival returned to Northern California in a two-day extravaganza celebrating disability culture and honoring films created by, for, and about the disabled community.

The festival, which is the longest running of its kind, was hosted by the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University and showcased 15 jury-selected films by an array of international filmmakers across two locations in the San Francisco Bay Area, in addition to a virtual screening option. It came amid immense turmoil in the entertainment industry with two expansive strikes halting production for much of 2023, threatening a disproportionate impact on disabled creatives.

“We’re really focused on being something that prioritizes being primarily for the disability community,” said Longmore Institute Interim Director and Superfest organizer Emily Smith Beitiks. “We’re trying to show films that push the envelope inside of the disability community, rather than just educating about disability.”

Superfest sets itself apart from other film festivals in how it prioritizes inclusion of its disabled audience members. For example, in addition to captioning and audio-description among its accessibility arsenal, the theatre in Berkeley was equipped with an assortment of beanbags allowing attendees to enjoy the films in a position most comfortable for them.

Festival co-director and writer Shaina Ghuraya said, “We go beyond access; we care about comfort. What makes Superfest stand apart is that we go above and beyond the minimal requirements.”

Attendees mill around at a film festival, many of them are using wheelchairs.
Filmgoers gather at Superfest Disability Film Festival in Berkeley, California on Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in a crowd where using a wheelchair is the norm. (Courtesy of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability)

She added, “My goal is to create a safe space for more and more disabled folks to come out and have a good time.”

This year’s films highlighted nuanced elements of the disabled experience, such as the vulnerability of young love, the burden of substantiating an invisible illness, and the trauma of involuntary sterilization. Many audience members were themselves disabled and shared the validation – sometimes even elation – they felt seeing their experiences represented on-screen.

In reference to a short film about the frequent infantilization of disabled people, Superfest attendee Enrica Archetti said: “It’s nice to know I’m not the only one going through the same struggle.”

Daisy Friedman is a student and New York-based filmmaker whose film As You Are was awarded “Best of the Festival” at this year’s Superfest. Her film stars model, actress, and disability advocate Bri Scalesse, and gives an intimate portrayal of a queer interabled couple and their first night together. The term ‘interabled’ refers to a relationship in which one partner is disabled and the other is not.

In an interview following the festival, Friedman said, “You never see that kind of story on any kind of screen, big or small… It didn’t even occur to me that it was such a revolutionary thing when we started the process.”

Daisy Friedman holds up her award and smiles for the camera.
Daisy Friedman poses for a photograph with her award at Superfest Disability Film Festival on Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023, in San Francisco, California. (Courtesy of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability)

She added, “There’s a really beautiful delicateness to queer love stories that has been shown on screen, but in able-bodied relationships. It made a lot of sense to me how [disability and queerness] go together, in terms of bodily autonomy, in terms of sexuality, in terms of giving the disabled character the space to appreciate her body and also be in control.”

As a multi-organ transplant recipient who identifies as disabled, Friedman hopes her films will have a distinct impact on disabled audiences like those attending Superfest. “I want people to see themselves in media… People who look like them, people who have had the same thoughts and worries that they’ve had about their own bodies and histories.”

The festival came against the backdrop of a drawn-out labour crisis affecting all facets of the entertainment industry, causing the shutdown of many major productions and reflecting rising tensions between studios and creatives. Disabled writers and actors stand to suffer disproportionate impacts from the strike action, the circumstances of which experts say exacerbate existing societal barriers and inequities facing this community.

“For many of the people we surveyed, there was a real [sense of] ‘if push comes to shove, I’m not going to be able to feed my family’. Or, ‘if we go into this strike a particular number of months, I’m just going to have to move [out of Los Angeles]’,” explained Saga Darnell, Research, Advocacy, and Communications Lead at Inevitable Foundation, a nonprofit supporting disabled writers and filmmakers.

Participants of a strike gather together talking with one another.
Striking writers and supporters gather at Inevitable Foundation’s accessible picket line in Los Angeles, California. (Courtesy of A Klass)

Inevitable Foundation published a report earlier this year on the potential impact of a WGA strike on disabled writers, many of who already suffer financial burdens due to discrimination in the industry. Once the WGA strike was called, they quickly pivoted to provide emergency funds to disabled writers and launched a campaign titled “The future of disabled creatives is non-negotiable” to elevate their particular struggle while negotiations took place.

Darnell said of the campaign tagline and accompanying accessible picketing efforts, “Our intention here was to say [that] anyone who’s in that room, whether it’s on the AMPTP [Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers] side or the union side, anyone who’s on the picket lines should be there for the most marginalized members of their community.”

With both the writers’ and actors’ strikes now concluded, Inevitable Foundation is conducting follow-up research to assess the predicted impact against the actual impact for disabled writers to whom they provided relief funding. Among other datapoints, the report will examine whether these disabled writers were able to secure the financial means to remain in their creative role and is set to publish later this year.

Overall, however, fears persist that the conditions of the strikes will be detrimental to the future of disability storytelling in Hollywood. Darnell added, “We are seeing a real potential for a loss of disabled creatives from the industry as a whole.”

Superfest Disability Film Festival was attended by more than 800 filmgoers across in-person and virtual platforms and showcased the triumph of disability art in a post-pandemic and post-strike era.

Ghuraya reflected on the significance of holding Superfest at such a poignant time in what many consider the birthplace of the disability rights movement: “[It’s] a celebration of our perspectives, while also showing what can be done outside the confines of the studio system and of Hollywood.

“Look at the quality of films we can make without these gatekeepers having any say in it. That’s why I really appreciated this year’s Superfest – we’re showing that we can still produce great content.”


  • Tilly Kennedy Griffiths

    Born and raised in the United Kingdom, Tilly Griffiths moved to California for college and graduated with her B.A. from Stanford in 2022. For her undergrad career, she majored in Communication and Political Science and focused on the intersection of media, democracy, and human rights. Outside of the classroom, Tilly was deeply involved in Stanford’s disability community and wrote frequently on the topic of disability justice as an opinion columnist for The Stanford Daily. She has spent the past year in Los Angeles working for The Walt Disney Company in corporate social responsibility, and is now excited to return to Stanford and continue telling impactful stories through the Data Journalism master's program.

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