Colin Hambrook attended the eighth edition of Carousel’s learning-disability film festival, Oska Bright which took place at Brighton’s Old Market 15-17 November 2017. Having attended previous festivals, he reflects on how far Oska Bright has come.
At a time when our tv and cinema screens are scheduled full of multi-million-dollar Hollywood films that so often tell the same story in many guises, with an ever-increasing reliance on digital technology and diminishing value placed on script, plot and character, independent film-makers provide a much-needed antidote. Now in its eighth edition, the value of Oska Bright Film Festival is slowly gaining recognition.
The festival won Best Event in The City at the Brighton and Hove Business Awards 2016. With an enthusiastic crew of VIPs from the film industry handing out Awards and filing up for photo opportunities on the closing night, the festival ended on a real buzz for the bright future of Carousel’s flagship program.
Independent script editor Kate Leys spoke with passion for the genuineness of the storytelling that is the bedrock of the success of the films that Oska Bright supports, promotes and screens. Programmed, managed and delivered by a team of learning-disabled film enthusiasts led by Festival Director, Becky Bruzas, and Programme Manager, Matthew Hellett, this year’s season opened with a ground-breaking, inaugural LGBTQ+ strand.
Hellett gave an emotional speech when handing out an award to Queer/Femme Filmmaker Matthew Kennedy for his outstanding contribution to film-making. Kennedy is a clear advocate for the voices of gay learning-disabled people. In his short film Just Me he talks to camera about the importance of gender and identity as themes he can grapple with as an artist.
The struggle for recognition of the voices of gay learning-disabled people clearly has some way to go, but Kennedy refuses to be pigeon-holed by labels.
With the combination of Hellett and Kennedy behind Oska Bright (their work was featured in the Brighton Photo Biennial last year as part of Eyes Wide Open Cinema) the LGBTQ+ slot can only grow in confidence, with films exploring the intersection between learning disability and sexuality.
Life on Two Spectrums by Elizabeth-Valentina Sutton won the award for best documentary, giving an insight into the life and times of Dan ‘Tia Anna’ Kahn, a drag queen with Asperger’s Syndrome who founded A.S.P.E.C.S (Autistic and Aspergers Persons of Every Category of (Queer) Sexuality).
However, the sexuality of learning-disabled people still remains very much a taboo subject. One of the most talked-about films at Oska Bright was Sanctuary, for which Len Collin received the 2017 Newport Beach Film Festival Best Director Award. A blend of black comedy, farce and hard-hitting social commentary, the film opens the lid on the scandal of the sexual abuse of learning-disabled people in Irish care homes. The Irish government’s response to date has been to blame the victims and push the conversation about consent under the carpet by making sex illegal for people with learning difficulties.
Friendship was a theme running through Friday screenings. I was particularly taken with Charlie – a film by Lev Omelchenko which opened the afternoon’s ‘Portrait of the Artist’ session. This 25-minute documentary takes the viewer on a journey around Brookline, Massachusetts as a way of getting to know one artist – known as The Mayor of Brookline (aka Charlie Hurvitz) – who has made it his role in life to make a friend of the whole community.
Charlie’s art and sculpture expresses his love of people and of music, especially in the wild emblematic bright and flowing pieces that he makes in the studios of Gateway Arts where he works. The film articulates the meaning of art as a means of connection and of bringing people together in creative and constructive ways.
The one difficulty the film gives rise to is Charlie’s clear dislike of being in front of the camera. He is a sociable person, but equally a very private person when it comes to talking about himself. I just hope that in editing the film the director sought the artists permission to include some of the more unsettling moments. It’s about agency really; respect for the individual to be represented as he would wish to be portrayed.
A beautiful touch to this year’s festival was the creation of an installation space by Arty Party, Four Solos in the Wild.The group brought a bit of Wales into the festival creating a tranquil ambient space for festival-goers to chill and relax in. Muted by leaves brought in to create a forest-feel the work consisted of an exhibition of exquisite photos of dancers engaging with the woods and a set of four pieces of dance for film. Exploring connection with nature, the dancers move slowly and deliberately to a set of calming song cycles set to music. The songs were gathered by musicians from within 10 miles of the woodland setting, adding to the sense of connection evoked by the installation.
Through its vision to develop the talents of learning-disabled people both in front of, and behind, the camera, Oska Bright has consistently encouraged film-makers to push themselves further; to be more imaginative and open in their approach. As Oska Bright develops in tenacity, so the breadth of contribution to the festival has become increasingly imaginative. It is wonderful to see this highlight of the disability arts calendar go from strength to strength.