Together! Disability Film Festival screens The Social Model

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The seventh annual Together! 2018 Disability Film Festival took place from 7-9 December at the Old Town Hall Stratford, screening films by Deaf/Disabled filmmakers and films with a strong central Deaf/Disabled character. The highlight was a screening of 104 Films ‘The Social Model’. Review by Stephen Portlock

While The Social Model risks singing mostly to an already persuaded choir unperturbed by the film’s less than enticing title, the issues covered are of crucial importance. 104 Films are distributors of among others Notes on Blindness, Special People and Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, all of which have made extensive use of disabled talent both in front of and behind the camera.

Part documentary, part promotional tool for 104 Films, The Social Model, directed by Justin Edgar and produced by Alex Usborne, is largely made up of film clips and commentaries from disabled activists including Dr Paul Darke and Katherine Araniello.

Paul Darke sits with his hands raised in exasperation

Still from The Social Model. Image © 104 Films

The first half sets out the sobering state of cinematic and televisual English language depictions of disability. 59 non-disabled actors have earned Oscar nominations for playing disabled characters. While 14% of people in employment aged between 16 and 64 considered themselves disabled, according to a 2016 census, only 0.3% of the total film workforce are disabled people.

Even in rare instances where disabled actors are involved, they end up portraying archetypal victims, villains or martyrs, much as has been the case since the silent era. Disability is used as shorthand with no further character development necessary – witness for example Richard III or Blofeld’s performance in the Bond film You Only Live Twice.

Indeed cinephile Paul Darke espoused the overall argument of The Social Model – that one of the most fragile forms of identity is that of ‘normality’. Disability is used in mainstream cinema in order to define normality. All this is to my mind persuasive, and the documentary acknowledges that the Disability Arts movement arose not just out of the writings of Michael Oliver but in tandem with Black identity, Feminism and Queer studies. Yet The Social Model feels impoverished (possibly due to its comparatively short running time at around an hour) for not drawing even closer parallels with the representation of other marginalised groups who have experienced similar discrimination.

Whatever caveats one might have about 104 Films, their commitment to ‘disability themes’ extends across a remarkably wide range of genres including the serious drama The Hunger House, about the Nazi euthanasia of disabled people, the martial arts short King Fu, the porn-themed comedy Hans Solo and the satire on assisted suicide Follow Me On My Journey.

Indeed 104 Films have been criticised precisely for using disabled actors. Justin approached a high-powered producer for some advice and she was offended by the idea of disabled people being employed – fearing that they were being exploited. On the release of the comedy Special People, the British Board of Film Classification included a warning that it included ‘disability themes’.

Probably the most well-known work from 104 Films is the Ian Dury biopic Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, and while that work was criticised for casting non-disabled Andy Serkis in the lead role, it still featured considerable disabled talent in supporting roles. At any rate, 104 Films took the criticism seriously and produced iWitness in which a disabled actor played a non-disabled role.

As with the first word, the last word in The Social Model is given once again to Paul Darke:

“Mainstream culture thrives and survives by plagiarising the margins, and unless you have a… vibrant margin then the mainstream will go up, which is fundamentally what has been happening in the last five decades”

Let’s hope that 104 Films continues to reverse this negative trend.