Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2006, Volume 26, No. 4
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Sprout Film Festival. May 6-7, 2006. NYU Cantor Film Center.

Reviewed by MJ Robinson, Marymount Manhattan College

Films reviewed in detail:

John and Michael. (2004). National Film Board of Canada. Filmmaker: Shira Avni. Animation.

Nothing to Fear—Behind the Scenes. (2006). Sprout Make-A-Movie Program. Director and Screenwriter: Anthony Di Salvo. Starring: Samuel Connor, Frank Glacken, Murray Greenberg, Michael Greenebaum, Dorothy Langdon, Andres Leon, Linda McCloat, Lucille Payne, Michael Robinson, Jeremy Schwartz, Viru Singh. DVD Release Date: June, 2006.

The Sprout Film Festival (founded 2003) is one of many programs created and administered by the not-for-profit Sprout organization. This year's slogan, "making the invisible visible," highlights the raison d'etre for such a festival in the first place. While many film scholars have examined "the underrepresented" in film and television, scholarship on representations of disabled people in film and television is primarily focused on physically disabled people. Literature on developmentally disabled people is predominantly confined to specific texts, such as Life Goes On (1989-1993, ABC), which is centered around issues such as "mainstreaming" or The Other Sister (1999), which features the representation of developmental disabilities by non-disabled actors. The multifaceted experiences and abilities of developmentally disabled people are largely ignored or treated in a reductionist way.

The Sprout Film Festival showcases films about the lives of the developmentally disabled in all of their complexity and variety. Screening 18 films over two days at NYU's Cantor Film Center, what is notable about the productions is that they represent developmentally disabled people from within their unique experiences of the world.

Among the animated entries was John and Michael, which tells the story of two men with Down syndrome who live in a group home and whose relationship is emotionally and physically intimate. Narrated by Brian Davis, who is developmentally disabled himself, and animated with clay backlit on glass, the film is visually striking, but also emotionally affecting. We hear of John's experience of his relationship with Michael in halting words that give us a window into John and Michael's feelings about each other and their perception of their relationship. While the sexual lives of developmentally disabled people are rarely, if ever, dealt with in films, this film presents a homosexual relationship among two developmentally disabled men thus making a powerful statement that not only do these relationships exist, but that they are as legitimate as any other relationships among people regardless of orientation or disability.

The highlight of Saturday's program was definitely the premiere of Nothing to Fear—Behind the Scenes, a Sprout Make-A-Movie production starring seven amateur actors with developmental disabilities. A tremendous crowd pleaser with most of the cast in attendance, the film is a mockumentary rather than a true horror film. The ensemble piece opens as seven participants in a Sprout Make-A-Movie vacation meet their director and the documentary film crew that has signed on to film their process as they make a vampire film. They travel upstate to an inn where they meet the innkeeper, who is to play the vampire and begin to get the sense that things may be a bit odd about this production. This is confirmed as one by one the actors film their scenes with the innkeeper and then begin to stay up late, drink red wine, dress in black, and assume a nosferatu-esque affect. The film was directed by Anthony Di Salvo, the founder and Executive Director of Sprout who uses people with developmental disabilities for all major acting roles in his narrative films. Particularly striking about this film (which was entirely scripted) were the challenges and opportunities with which it presented the actors. The characters the actors played were not hapless victims, the story was not about attempting to fit in to a world that is often cruel and misunderstanding. The actors were playing characters who were actors in a film that was a film about the making of another film. These layers of performance are complex and challenging, requiring an ability to comprehend several levels of understanding in the creation of a realistic performance. Moreso, the film required the actors to make the scripted scenes appear improvised. The successful end result is a testimony to the cast's ability as well as Di Salvo's skill at working with this unique group.

What remains clear is that there is a dearth of films about people with developmental disabilities. Among the narrative films were many productions that have already been seen elsewhere, such as Jonathan: The Boy Nobody Wanted (NBC, 1992, Lifetime Channel thereafter); The Kiss (available on Lumiere and Company (DVD released 1998); and Flesh and Blood (produced and broadcast by the BBC, 2002). Only three of the 18 films shown were produced this year, with some of the films going back as far as 1983.

The Sprout Film Festival is a unique venue for films about this underrepresented group of adults and as such provides a tremendous opportunity for developmentally disabled people to see themselves on "the big screen" as well as the general public to gain a better understanding of their lives and abilities. It should be noted that Sprout also runs a traveling film festival through which institutions and organizations can request a program of films to be exhibited in their communities.

Bibliography/Further Information:


Copyright (c) 2006 MJ Robinson

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