Interview with Screenability Guest Programmer, Sofya Gollan
This year Sydney Film Festival presents Screenability, in partnership with Create NSW and the NSW Department of Family and Community Services, a new platform of screen practitioners with disability leading the narrative. This international program showcases the best of 2017, spanning drama and documentary from Australia, France, New Zealand and the UK, offering insights and unique perspectives on life. Ahead of the Inaugural program we spoke to the Guest Programmer Sofya Gollan.
Screenability is the first program stream in an Australian film festival, featuring films made by people with disability. The lives of people with disability could be seen as somewhat of a mystery by mainstream audiences, and portrayals of people with disability in film have often been less than flattering, and sometimes downright offensive. With this in mind, how do you approach the programming, and does this affect your goals in selecting and finding films for the festival?
I have a number of things in mind when I’m programming for the Sydney Film Festival (SFF). Basically I need to make sure whatever I’m looking at is going to be in line with the high standards of the Sydney Film Festival program, the best of the year it’s coming into. SFF always programs the most current and vital films around the world to bring to Sydney audiences.
I came at the programing with a disability-led perspective, in that I was looking for one of the three key creatives of the film – either the writer, the director or the producer – and they had to identify as living with disability in order to be able to give that authentic portrayal of what disability might look like up on screen. That was the first criteria, and then it actually had to be good enough to fit with the overall standard of the festival.
Finally it was about making sure that the films in the strand weren’t too similar or that I wasn’t programming the same kind of film throughout the strand, so I was looking for diverse stories, diverse disability. But overriding all that I was looking for films that were entertaining, thought provoking and led me to view the world somewhat differently through another perspective, much the same way as I would have been programming any kind of film, whether it’s horror or drama or documentary. Ultimately, you’re looking for an experience that adds to your perspective on the world, and I applied that lens to disability as well.
The Screenability program brings together films from different countries, exploring the lives of people with different disabilities. What are the differences you’re seeing between the diverse range of filmmakers?
I think the differences between the films I was looking at worldwide was more about skill, because I was looking at films from established filmmakers who might have acquired a disability later in their career, or I was looking at people who are still starting out, who are still emerging, still accumulating the skills they need to be competitive on a worldwide level. That was more the diversity of skill, rather than stories or perspective.
I think with disability, the commonality of experience in terms of how exclusion happens, how people overcome it combines in what I believe happens, that people with disability actually do have a different lens on the world. And sometimes that can translate into a surprising perspective, or a way of looking at things that you might have never considered before. So I was looking for that fresh perspective, that fresh thought, that sometimes didn’t have anything to do with disability, but because of the nature of who they were and how their disability entwined in their lives, it focused and sharpened their storytelling in a way that was fresh and unique, rather than looking for a story that advocated or advanced the cause for disability inclusion.
I wanted to take a more organic approach to how the disability informed the filmmaker’s approach to making a film, and how it infused the story, rather than it having to have disability content, or having the film be about the rights and trials and tribulations or inspiration or victim – it was more about ‘how has this person’s experience informed the story they’re telling’?
Because I have a disability myself, I’m kind of able to skip past the superficial assumption that many people make, which is they’re so amazing to have just done that thing, to have got past the disability. I’m just kind of like yeah, well, the disability is somewhat irrelevant, in terms of the ability to create content (without discounting how disability can prevent career development for many). I want to know how that disability has shaped the worldview they have, because I think that’s where surprising and provocative cinema happens.
The question I wanted to ask now was about what you think the challenges for people living with disability are in the film and television industry, and what needs to change?
I think you can’t deny that a disability can make it difficult on a production set, especially when there are large amounts of money and time involved in realising screen content. I think the main barrier for people with disability in entering the film industry, especially if they want to be a writer, director or producer, is navigating the intricacies networking and sometimes the physical requirements of being on set.
Generally, for most people, the career pathway is that they’ll work up from being a production assistant; they’ll work up from the bottom level and work through the roles until they find their natural home for their skills and their temperament. But often for people with disability, that’s not a pathway that’s open to them, because they can’t fulfil – it’s a lot more difficult for them to fulfil the role of helper to the set as they themselves may need support to fulfil their roles.
The career pathway will often be, for people with disability, that if they want to be a director, they will have to make their own stuff in order to demonstrate that they’ve got talent, because often they’re not going to get the opportunity to be an assistant director or a production assistant or any of those things, because it’s too difficult for them to crack into the industry that way. Often they have to be supported into those roles in a way that’s more innovative, different. I think people need to recognise that the career pathway to various roles in the industry is going to be somewhat different, but I think with the right kind of support, there’s no reason why people can’t be contributors and as skilled in their area as other people who might have come to it in a more traditional way.
With that challenge in mind what advice you have for emerging practitioners in the industry?
I think my main advice would be with all of the instant filmmaking equipment that you have at your disposal, is to make your own stuff, and to get out there and do it. There is no substitute for that, and it doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not. It’s the advice I give everybody. Even if all you’ve got is a smartphone, you get the apps, you put it on your phone, you just go out there and do it and you get better and better as you go on. People want a demonstration of your viewpoint, your ideas, your ability to pull together a story and that will never change. So my advice is that just make stuff, and as you get more and more ambitious, you will know what kind of team you want to accumulate. You will develop strategies for getting around whatever disability you might have, in terms of producing the content, create your own web series, as low-fi as it may be, because people respond really, really well to that.
Sydney Film Festival is a top-tier film festival internationally, and nationally it’s our longest running film festival, and it’s also the first to showcase a program such as Screenability. What’s the significance of that?
I’d like to point out that the Sydney Film Festival have supported and put the spotlight on disability content before in the late 1990s. The difference is then it was very much about filmmakers making films about disability, rather than people with disability creating the content themselves. The distinction here is that Screenability is about filmmakers who have disability being in control of the narrative, telling the story that they want to tell from their authentic perspective. This is a first for Sydney Film Festival, to be focusing on that in this strand of Screenability. And I think it’s fantastic to have that mainstream exposure, that mainstream critical recognition, as it were, of these filmmakers who are now entering or have been in the industry for some time. So it’s a way of acknowledging that disability cinema is a genre, is an emerging form of screen content that is now starting to be taken seriously.
One of the exciting challenges for filmmakers with disability is that hopefully their work will translate into the broader film community – like you said, into a new genre as well, but bringing the idea of accessibility into other people’s work, not just as an add-on or a cliché. How do you think the industry can better represent people with disability so they don’t just end up being tokenistic?
I think the best way industry can represent stories and content with disability is actually realising that there is a great deal of talent out there, eager and willing to tell the story themselves. I think it’s about recognising that. Nowadays you wouldn’t dream of having Indigenous content without First Nations people telling it for themselves, and much in the same way, I think disability needs to be recognised in the same fashion, that if you’re going to tell a story with disability, actually work with people with disability so it’s authentic. That way you’re going to get much deeper insight, you’re going to get better stories, better drama, than following the usual trope of they have a disability, they’ve overcome it and it’s just so inspirational; or they have a disability, we need to help them, they’re such victims. They tend to be the two main tropes of disability, and it’s not that interesting, to be honest. It’s about recognising that there is talent out there and it’s not actually that hard to put in the supports needed for them to be a contributor to your company or to your production, and to realise their stories.
People do seem to think it’s really complicated to have someone with disability on set, don’t they?
It really depends what disability it is. If you have a mobility disability, then I think you kind of have to work out what’s going to work and what’s not. I think it really boils down to what kind of story is being told, and what kind of support is required. Often the person with disability will tell you what you need to do, what supports need to be in place, and they’re often far simpler than you may think.
In the main festival program, there’s a documentary called It’s Not Yet Dark, and that’s about Simon Fitzmaurice, who has motor neurone disease, and he basically directed a film from his wheelchair in a tent. And that film, My Name is Emily, has been programmed in the festival’s Screenability strand. It’s a really nice crossover of where we actually get to see the film he’s made, but we can also watch the documentary how he actually did it. He basically came up with solutions on how to get around the fact that he couldn’t speak or walk, as a director would normally do with his actors. He directed from his station, and he produced a beautiful film. It’s always about going back to the person with disability and asking, ‘So how do we get around what might seem to be a problem?’ to find the solution.
What are some of your long-term hopes for people with disability in the screen industry?
I think there are a lot of emerging filmmakers in Australia with disability who are building up the networks and teams around them and the knowledge of how to access finance for their project. I think a long-term hope would be to have a good percentage of these filmmakers going on to acquire other knowledge they need to be professional industry players. I would love to see people, filmmakers with disability applying to the general finance round of any screen agency and having a decent shot at gaining finance for their project - to be able to approach their project in a professional and competent manner. We’ve got a number of those people already, and it’s now just about putting industry on notice that they can take these people seriously. That would be my long-term hope that these would be seen as filmmakers with a story to tell, rather than as people to be discouraged when they come knocking on your door.
Now, you’re also a filmmaker yourself. Can you share with us your latest projects, and what you’re working on?
I work at Create NSW, that’s a dream job for me, because it enables me to work with a great many of filmmakers on a professional and industry level. It enables me to put my finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the NSW and Australian film industry, so it’s a real privilege to be part of that process. But you know, that only really means I can have one project on the side going at any one time, and currently I’m producing a documentary called Imagined Touch and that’s a really exciting project to be part of.