A Taste of ReelAbilities New York 2024

Image Description: 16th Annual ReelAbilities Film Festival New York April 3 to 10, 2024, Celebrating disability through film. Five panels showing scenes from different films

This article is based on a talk Isaac Zablocki, co-founder of ReelAbilities and the director of film programs at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan, gave at A11yNYC about the 2024 ReelAbilities Film Festival: New York.

ReelAbilities: The Beginning

Xian Horn said that from the beginning, ReelAbilities has centered the films around disabled voices. ReelAbilities invited Xian to speak in one of her first speaking gigs because they wanted someone with a disability to present.

She refers to Isaac as Yitzi. She says he has a wonderful family with a wife and kids. Yet, he views ReelAbilities and this festival as another child, another part of the family.

Hence, his commitment to the film festival is more than just in a professional capacity. He gives all of his heart, all of his time, and his passion to the film festival. Yitzi exemplifies that he cares about representation, inclusion, and accessibility.

Yitzi introduced himself as Isaac or Yitzi Zablocki. He answers to both names. In writing his opening night remarks, he said that he’s very lucky that his work is an extension of who he is and his beliefs. It’s the kind of world he wants to live in. He’s glad to have people who help create that same kind of world.

ReelAbilities is the largest disability Film Festival in the world. It was born out of New York City. In the fourth year of the festival, they got a request from Cincinnati to host ReelAbilities there. They told Cincinnati they had all the films, all the connections, and all the accessibility for these films. Let’s pass it to another city! That took off like wildfire.

Other cities wanted to do the same. But it takes resources to start a festival like this. And it takes good organization on the ground. So, ReelAbilities started in New York and runs in dozens of cities across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

They’re constantly expanding, constantly getting requests for ReelAbilities in more places. They tell the cities here’s the package, here’s how you have to run it, you need to be trained, you need to do this right, and you need to make it accessible. You must have the pillars of what they believe in.

The Importance of Community

What makes ReelAbilities special is the movies. They’re fantastic and high-quality films. In terms of cinematic quality, they don’t make any compromises for production, writing, acting, and everything about it. At the same time, they don’t compromise in terms of the films’ messages. These films are progressive in their approach to disability.

There’s been trouble with Hollywood all these years. Think about a film like “Rain Man” and the damage that it has done to the autistic community. Anytime someone says that they’re autistic, people immediately assume they can count cards and tell you how many matches just fell on the floor like the autistic character in “Rain Man.” Hollywood hasn’t done the best job as there hasn’t been authenticity.

Usually, there’s a little bit of a Band-Aid when it comes to representation. Now, there’s important work that is being done in Hollywood. Yitzi is seeing change for the better.

Another pillar of ReelAbilities is its partnerships. They don’t operate in a vacuum. They know that there have been many before them and many after them. Many are doing the work on the ground. They want this to be a space and create a space where all of their partners can feel welcome and feel like they can be a part of this stage for the disability community. This is a moment for the community to be in the spotlight.

They want to do more than have these films on the screen. No matter what, they follow each film with a conversation. They want to make the community part of this and create memorable experiences by having the community interact with the films. Some of the most beautiful things come from that.

Last year, Yitzi saw how they recognized what a community they helped build over the years. Suddenly, there are regulars that are coming and they’re meeting up with their friends. It’s not always easy for the community to bring everybody together and have these conversations.

Every year, there’s a first-timer who says they had never seen themselves on the screen. This is the first time they’re seeing it. And then there’s someone who doesn’t think they have any connection to the disability community. They’re watching the movie for the first time. They say it’s something they can relate to and had no idea. It’s that full spectrum of the community coming together. And that’s the beauty of film.

Yitzi feels like they’re serving ice cream. People come for a fun movie. They don’t show depressing movies. They show films that engage the community. Sometimes they’re happy, sometimes they’re dramatic, but they will stay with you and give you a new perspective on disability.

Creating Accessible Experiences

Another core value of theirs is accessibility. They raise the bar on accessibility. Every year, they look for new things. It’s slowed down because they do a lot. However, in the early years, there weren’t enough audio describers in New York to describe the films. They had to train people to become audio describers.

Not all films were audio-described in the festival’s first years. They’d do it for films that were related to the blind community. One year, they got a request at the last minute. Somebody called them and said they were blind and coming to the film the next day. It didn’t have audio description.

What did they do? They made it happen and live audio described it for this person. It was amazing. It was that year when they reached a point and said they’d raise the money to ensure every film was audio described and shown in open captions.

For those who are part of the disability community, the first question is often, “Is this accessible to me?” ReelAbilities can be a space where you don’t have to ask that question. They’re always learning and always also figuring out any friction that exists. After all, when you make something accessible, it could make it inaccessible to someone else.

They’re constantly aware of this. They’re big believers in universal design. It’s been hard for them to find places that are actual screening spaces. They don’t just want a big open room. They want a real movie theater to ensure they don’t compromise the theatrical experience.

This film festival brings in many people who use wheelchairs. It was tough to find a place that supports 14 wheelchair seats. They had to find a big theater because ADA requires a certain percentage of wheelchair-accessible seating, and that’s why bigger spaces sometimes have enough. But they can’t fill the biggest spaces. These spaces are extremely rare in New York, especially in older buildings. They love spaces where everybody is having the same experience together.

Fortunately, their main location is the JCC in Manhattan. It’s one of the few spaces with a fabulous theater and ample wheelchair seating. What they like about the JCC is it’s universally designed. They want to ensure people who use wheelchairs do not have to take elevators on the side, in the back, or a special entrance. They want them to use the same elevators as everyone else. That’s universal design.

The film festival implemented the concept of individual design too. They ask how they can make experiences more accessible for individuals. It’s a luxury but they want to provide it. They have a sensory room. All their conversations are captioned. They have audio descriptions, ASL interpreters, and tons of little things.

In year five, they learned the soap in the women’s bathroom was inaccessible. They fixed it. A door doesn’t open in the right way. The festival tries to figure out how to make things as accessible as possible.

About the Films

The films are diverse and cover the full spectrum of disabilities. One year, they had a film about migraines. Some might think migraines are not a disability. Clearly, they have not knowingly met anyone who has had a migraine.

They try to find films that include any kind of disability. They love films that are not about disability but rather include disability in a story of life. One of Yitzi’s favorites was a Hungarian film called “Kills on Wheels.” It was their nominee for the Oscar that year. It was a group of assassins who happened to use wheelchairs. The movie wasn’t about wheelchairs.

The festival runs in multiple locations throughout New York for geographic accessibility. In the first year, they had 15 locations. They got up to 40 locations but then consolidated down.

During the pandemic, they learned that they could be more accessible geographically if they provided a virtual option. They’re continuing with the virtual option even though they don’t get the rights for all the films. About half of the films are available virtually. This allows people to enjoy ReelAbilities from anywhere.

Beyond the films, they have an industry summit for performing arts talking about film and performing arts. Every year, they host a comedy night. Xian Horn runs a beauty and fashion conversation. She takes these concepts to the next level and talks about the intersection of disability, beauty, and fashion. All of it relates to creating cultural change through these stories and films.

Submission Process

The process for reviewing film submissions has evolved. They get hundreds of submissions, which is wonderful. They work with a platform called Film Freeway. It’s a general film festival submission platform.

ReelAbilities has a huge group of judges who help select the films. The film selection committee consists of people who are new and people who have been with them for a long time. All of it goes through a system until they make their final decisions.

The filmmakers fill out a form, which has also evolved over the years. Beyond everything that they need to submit to the platform, they have a specific form where they ask: Who is involved in the film that has a disability? What other diversity might have been included in the process of filmmaking?

They learn as much as possible about these films. The filmmakers send a link to the film, the committee watches it, and unfortunately, the selection committee makes more enemies than friends. They have to turn down hundreds of films.

People work so hard on these movies and it takes so long. They’re making the movie so it can be in ReelAbilities, which is one of the few disability film festivals out there. When they don’t get in, then where will their film be shown? Most of these films do not get presented anywhere, which is heartbreaking.

Yitzi’s Experience

The festival has a short film called “Bear” that’s about being neurodivergent and ADHD. Yitzi shares he’s neurodivergent and has ADHD, so he could relate to this film. When he started ReelAbilities, he didn’t acknowledge that he was a member of the community.

This film was made by an organization that hires only people with disabilities. They created a short film that tells the story of this organization called Working Differently.

Yitzi was trying to come to this from a cinematic perspective. He wanted to show great cinema that wasn’t being shown anywhere else and bring the community together to celebrate these films. It’s only through ReelAbilities that he is proud and owns his disability.

Video Highlights

Watch the Presentation


Isaac Zablocki is the co-founder of ReelAbilities and the director of film programs at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. He attended film school at Columbia University and went to work at Miramax Films. Previously, he produced and directed feature films and developed film educational programs for the Board of Education.

Since 2004, Isaac has been developing film programs at the JCC including The Israel Film Center. Beyond ReelAbilities, he programs multiple film festivals annually including the acclaimed Other Israel Film Festival about Arab and minority populations in Israel.

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