Freewheelers Freedom Film Festival took place from 14th – 18th July via You Tube and Facebook Live – DAO journalist Kate Lovell attended the first two days of the virtual festival.
Freewheelers Theatre and Media are an inclusive community company of disabled and non-disabled people, based in Leatherhead in Surrey – but their work has them globe-trotting: from the National Theatre in London to the UN Enable Film Festival at UN Headquarters in New York.
The pandemic may have put a pause on their touring for the time being, but the lockdown has not deterred their creativity: in the 14 weeks of lockdown, Freewheelers delivered an impressive 121 workshops via Zoom, keeping company members connected and creative whilst confined.
This July, they presented a retrospective of the past ten years of their film work in the virtual Freedom Film Festival, each night themed to a different genre.
Kicking off on 14th July with Drama, Song and Dance, Freewheelers plucked some gems from their archives, the highlight of the evening: a storytelling folk song with accompanying music video entitled One In A Million. It’s a love song, to a chippie, and the romance between the young Peggy-Sue (Isabela Oxnard) and Billy (Alex Southwood). The performances of Oxnard and Southwood are wonderfully engaging and tender, especially impressive given that they are purely visual, relying on close-up facial expressions and body language to tell their love story.
Revisiting the 2012 Olympic cultural offerings, Freewheelers screened the dance duet Trust, which was performed live at the National Theatre whilst simultaneously projected onto the fly tower: a spotlight moment for the company, well-worth bringing back to the fore. Sonas Musana and Anthony O’Sullivan are delicate and compassionate in their duet and the performance could serve as a metaphor for the supportiveness that this company have clearly shown for one another during the country’s health crisis.
The subsequent night focused on a series of deeply personal documentaries made by members of the company, presenting their experiences of being disabled people in an unflinchingly candid look into their lives.
Belt and Braces parts one and two were made a decade apart – with a focus on three members’ lives, and the changes that occur within that decade. This made for, at times, uncomfortable viewing, with a chillingly timely description of one member’s experience with signing a DNR form reminding us all of the precarious position disabled people have found themselves in during this pandemic.
In a post-screening panel discussion, Freewheelers’ patron John Kelly astutely keys into where the documentary making could go next: he invited the company to move away from the intensely personal, and to broaden out to the political. This is a wise observation: the documentaries shown were framed by individual impairment, which did at times feel voyeuristic to witness. The moments where the documentaries came to life were when each contributor talked about their own passions: for sailing, for dance, for Arsenal football club.
Perhaps it is a testament to how far we have come in the last ten years that the original documentaries feel old-fashioned in their medical model framing. It’s far more compelling to hear about the humanity of the contributors. Their own narratives as unique and interesting people speak far more effectively about what it means to be a disabled person than the previous impairment-specific journeys of a decade before.
It’s the creative work of the films, dance and drama that shines a light on the strength of the incredibly tight-knit and impactful company that Freewheelers have built – watching company members participating in the panel discussion, the sense of an emboldened creative community glows like an aura. If anything, lockdown seems to have strengthened bonds and fuelled creative fires: here’s to the next ten years of Freewheelers’ original output!