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I regularly scan the internet for disabled and D/deaf films – and make lists for next time I’m lucky enough to be a programmer. In 2016, I was thrilled to come across Matthew Hellett’s ‘Mrs Sparkle’. It’s unusual to find disabled LGBTQI+ films, especially ones with excitingly surreal narratives. Written and performed by Matthew as his drag queen alter ego, ‘Mrs Sparkle’ the film also features a learning-disabled supporting cast.
Matthew is lead programmer with Brighton’s learning-disability film festival, Oska Bright. In 2017, he created Queer Freedom, to counter the lack of learning-disabled and autistic LGBTQI+ stories in festivals. To my knowledge, this is the only programme of its kind.
My Glasgow colleague and friend, Mattie Kennedy, had a film in the programme, and gave the keynote on the opening night. Mattie told me that connecting with Matthew was life-changing. They connected over the joys and trials of making films while queer, working-class and learning-disabled.
In 2018 I was invited to programme a disabled and D/deaf showcase for BFI Flare in London. It was the first widely-accessible screening at Flare. It was also their first programme about and featuring disabled, D/deaf and neurodivergent people. I immediately thought of ‘Mrs Sparkle’.
For me, it was important to feature Matthew on our post-screening panel. It’s still shockingly rare to find a learning-disabled person in a leadership role. In wealthy and white arts circles (including queer arts) organisers often centre theory, difficult terminology, and artists with PhDs. Artists and activists regularly make cruel jokes about the intelligence of people they don’t agree with. And even disabled communities sideline learning-disabled people.
After the packed-out Flare screening of ‘Fighters of Demons, Makers of Cakes’, Matthew joined me on stage for a fab discussion with Bea Webster, Michael Achtman, Lynn Stewart-Taylor and David Ellington. My personal connection with Matthew was brief because of the hectic nature of the festival. But his thoughtful comments about marginalisation stayed with me. He spoke brilliantly about the uniqueness and importance of learning-disabled work.
In December 2018, This Way Up invited me to lead a discussion between Matthew and disabled filmmaker, Caglar Kimyoncu, at their conference in Liverpool. This is when our friendship took off. After several Skype meetings to figure out what to chat about and how, we also had coffee and then lunch together on the day. We connected around what we looked for, and avoided, in films. Our senses of humour bounced off each other so well my stomach ached.
We compared similar experiences of being featured in small or one-off events, usually at festivals without general access for disabled audiences, filmmakers or programmers. We shared the impression that some organisers choose to briefly highlight our communities because they want a quick solution to the ‘problem’ of access. Or because they’re seeking diversity credibility or funding.
Talking with Matthew and Caglar was one of the few times I’ve felt truly comfortable on a panel. We discussed who should be telling disabled stories, and how to make improvements for our communities. I especially enjoyed Matthew’s thoughts on the importance of ‘creative instinct’ to his programming.
For this year’s Glasgow Short Film Festival, Carousel and Matthew invited me to co-programme ‘Choose From The Following Options’. The idea was to create a ‘best-of’ screening based on the 2017 Oska Bright Film Festival. Renewing our Skype dates, Matthew and I compared our short-lists of ‘favourite’ films. Perhaps not surprisingly, our tastes overlapped a lot. But Matthew also brought ideas to the table I hadn’t thought of. We rearranged and combined our thoughts on the content and order of the programme. The result was a cracking selection neither of us could have imagined alone.
After the screening, I interviewed Matthew on stage. He talked about how non-disabled filmmakers and charities submit patronising films to Oska Bright. For example, videos on how to brush your teeth! This prompted us to discuss the importance of disabled people controlling our own narratives.
We then got excited describing the invisible work of pouring hours into making a programme flow. Both of us love how the order of a programme affects the audience’s overall mood and reception of each film. Matthew talked about learning-disabled filmmakers being left behind because of lack of access to higher education. This can be a result of being forced into separate ‘special’ schools and having no qualifications. Lastly, we had a passionate chat with the audience, including Mattie Kennedy. People commented that programmers and filmmakers like Matthew are doing world-changing work. But they wanted to see such work promoted and supported more often.
As always after spending time with Matthew, I went home with a full head and heart. And a pleasantly sore stomach!
Don’t miss the next Queer Freedom at Oska Bright’s launch night, 23 October 2019.