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Documentaries to Watch during Disability Pride Month 2023

By Ranell Shubert

Still from Blue, director Derek Jarman, 1993.

Dear IDA Members,

As an organization that celebrates the power of storytelling through nonfiction filmmaking, I want to take a moment to highlight July as Disability Pride Month.

In my role as the Nonfiction Access Initiative (NAI) Funds Program Manager at IDA, I am deeply committed to promoting an inclusive culture at IDA that embraces the experiences and perspectives of disabled nonfiction media makers. Disability Pride Month holds a special significance for me and many others, as it offers the opportunity to center the experiences and stories of disabled filmmakers. This month also serves as a reminder of the invaluable contributions of disabled filmmakers and their profound impact on the art of nonfiction storytelling.

While documentaries have long benefited from stories about disability, there has been a systematic lack of opportunity for disabled filmmakers to authentically tell stories. Too often, these narratives have been subject to an othering perspective, perpetuating stereotypes and failing to provide a true representation of the disabled experience. It is within this context that a call to action in the nonfiction community urges us to confront these biases, challenge prevailing norms, and empower disabled makers to take ownership of their narratives.

The NAI exists to address the glaring gaps in our industry, providing tangible support and resources to disabled filmmakers. We recognize the importance of creating a platform where their voices can be heard, celebrated, and embraced. Through our funding initiative, data collection, and career development programs, we strive to dismantle the barriers that have hindered disabled filmmakers from fully participating in funding and filmmaker support programs.

The NAI is committed to supporting disabled nonfiction media makers, through initiatives like the Nonfiction Media Makers with Disabilities Survey. By gathering this data, the NAI hopes to create a targeted fund to help disabled media-makers reclaim their stories, amplify their voices, and reshape the nonfiction form. The survey is a vital component of our mission, as it allows us to listen to the needs and aspirations of disabled nonfiction media makers directly. By understanding their perspectives and challenges, we can tailor our support programs to provide the necessary resources, funding, and professional development opportunities that seek to empower disabled makers.

The survey also serves as a powerful tool for collective advocacy, informing the industry at large about the experiences of disabled filmmakers and the changes needed to foster a more inclusive and equitable nonfiction landscape. We encourage any who identifies as disabled to participate in the survey,  as your insights will play a crucial role in shaping our future initiatives and ensuring that disabled filmmakers are not only heard but actively supported. Diagnosis is not needed to identify as disabled. Please complete the survey if you feel the identity applies to some of your experience.

It is crucial that we recognize the immense value that disabled filmmakers bring to the nonfiction form. Their unique perspectives challenge our preconceptions, invite empathy, and encourage a deeper understanding of the human experience. By centering their stories, we honor their lived experiences and enrich our collective understanding of diversity and inclusion.

During Disability Pride Month, I implore each and every one of you to seek out the works of disabled filmmakers. Take this time to listen to their voices, engage with their narratives, and embrace the power of their storytelling. Help us actively create spaces where disabled filmmakers can thrive, take the helm of their own stories, and contribute to a more authentic and inclusive nonfiction community.

Together we can dismantle the prevailing structures that have limited the participation of disabled nonfiction media makers and ensure that their stories are told on their own terms. By doing so, we transform our industry and forge a more equitable and empathetic society.

Ranell Shubert        
IDA Nonfiction Access Initiative Funds Program Manager        

List of documentaries to watch during Disability Pride Month 2023, recommended by the IDA team!

Being Michelle (Atin Mehra, 2022)

Being Michelle follows the astounding journey of a deaf and disabled woman who survived incarceration under unimaginable circumstances by a system that refused to accommodate her needs as a deaf person with autism.

Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993)

Blue is a 1993 experimental film directed by Derek Jarman. It is his final feature film, released four months before his death from AIDS-related complications. Such complications had already rendered him partially blind at the time of the film's release, only being able to see in shades of blue. Recommended by Keisha Knight.

Where to Watch: Criteron, Ovid, Metrograph, Kino Now, Kanopy

Crip Camp (James Lebrecht, Nicole Newnham, 2020)

Down the road from Woodstock, a revolution blossomed at a ramshackle summer camp for teenagers with disabilities, transforming their lives and igniting a landmark movement. Recommended by Ranell Shubert.

Where to Watch: Netflix

I Didn't See You There (Reid Davenport, 2022)

The unexpected arrival of a circus tent outside Reid's apartment in Oakland, CA leads him to consider the history and legacy of P.T. Barnum’s Freak Show and its lingering presence in his daily life in the form of gawking, lack of access, and other forms of ableism. The film expands on the tradition of point-of-view cinema by incorporating a disabled aesthetic generated through Davenport's own embodiment. Recommended by Ranell Shubert.

Where to Watch: PBS

In My Language (Mel Baggs, 2022)

A short film that brings us into the world of a neuro-divergent filmmaker. Recommended by Keisha Knight.

Where to Watch: YouTube

Mafifa (Daniela Muñoz Barroso, 2021)

Filmmaker Daniela Muñoz Barroso, who is almost completely deaf, searches for the identity of the great musician Mafifa. Her quest leads her on the trail of an enigmatic woman, and also makes her question her own head and heart. 

Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements (Irene Taylor, 2019)

Moonlight Sonata is a deeply personal memoir about a deaf boy growing up, his deaf grandfather growing old, and Beethoven the year he was blindsided by deafness and wrote his iconic sonata. Their lives weave a story about what we discover when we push beyond loss.

Where to Watch: HBO, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video

Planet of Snail (Seung-jun Yi, 2011)

A deaf-blind poet and his devoted wife share a rich life together and communicate with a touch-based form of Braille. Recommended by Mary Garbesi.

Where to Watch: Kanopy

The Tuba Thieves (Alison O'Daniel, 2023)

From 2011 to 2013, tubas were stolen from Los Angeles high schools. This is not a story about thieves or missing tubas. Instead, it asks what it means to listen.