restricted access 4. The Politics of Atypicality: International Disability Film Festivals and the Productive Fracturing of Identity
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115 four The Politics of Atypicality International Disability Film Festivals and the Productive Fracturing of Identity Three days into the 2004 London Disability Film Festival a small, international arts community took shape. In the tradition of many disability outings, such as those depicted in popular Hollywood films such as The Men (1950) or Waterdance (1992), a group of us planned dinner at a local restaurant. Twenty-­ two in all, we included five wheelchair users; three Deaf persons; two with visual impairments; several with seizure-­ based disorders; and three with communication differences. First, we navigated London’s uneven South Bank cobblestones to a nearby Pizza Express. Halting our group at the door, an employee greeted us with a double take. Next, she hollered over her shoulder to the manager: “How do we get all these disabilities in here?” While hardly remarkable among moments encountered by disabled people who travel in groups, the question of the nature and inclusiveness of our collectivity became increasingly vexed as the festival continued. Yet unlike the ubiquity of the openly expressed consternation about assemblies of disabled people encountered in public spaces, the question came from self-­ identified disability community members seeking the sometimes incompatible goals of diversity and alliance. Beyond worries over the sufficiency of diversity represented in the composition of our audience, this question also extended to concern over the diversity of the representational field itself; and, ultimately, to discussions of the barriers that prohibit disenfranchised disabled people from working in all aspects of the film industry. 116 the biopolitics of disability Depathologizing Disability Film Festivals This chapter discusses the rise of international independent disability film festivals as new spaces of social collectivity-­making developing as a response to the homogenizing inclusionist practices extant in neoliberal biopolitics. We do not undertake a history of these festivals and their changing logics, but rather attempt to theorize aspects of their composition at a relatively nascent moment in their development. Whereas other identity movements have already witnessed a burgeoning arena of film venues that help give voice to marginalized experiences—­for instance, B. Ruby Rich explains that gay and lesbian film festivals have metamorphosed from “small, self-­selected audiences” to “large events . . . complete with corporate sponsors and huge audiences” (Chick Flicks 79)—­ the majority of disability film festivals are less than one decade old, enjoy no corporate sponsorship, and still draw relatively small crowds. Within such nascent organizations, even the concept of disability collectivity proves elusive, tenuous, and fragile. Current concepts of collectivity on display at disability film festivals remain loosely tied to the goals of depathologization, or alternatively productive community iterations of disabled selves. Many films seek mainstream integration through better understanding of a single condition. However, these are quickly becoming a minor genre of independent disability film because they remain tethered to medical or rehabilitation objectives of eradication (though cure) or amelioration (through disguises of supplementation) or social acceptance (through the extension of a marginal forms of tolerance). Instead, disability film festivals have promoted films developed out of more transgressive activist sensibilities that tend to valorize oppositional identities. There is little evidence that disability collectivity has yet become marketable as an aspect of multicultural aesthetic or art house chic; there is also little desire in creating venues as spectacles for a historically overdisplayed social group. Yet, while concepts of collective identity develop in various locations among disability community participants, disability film festivals increasingly function as influential venues for collectivity formation. Film scholar Joshua Gamson identifies this process as “organizational shaping”: “identity boundaries are shaped by and shift through organizational activity, which itself responds to features of the institutional environment”(“Organization Shaping ” 235). In this sense, disability film festivals provide alternative “contexts for reception” and operate as active filters for forging new ways of “being disabled” in the twenty-­ first century (White, “Queer Publicity” 73). The Politics of Atypicality 117 Additionally, unlike other minority groups, disability movements (including the independent international film festivals they help spawn) have to reimagine exclusionary public spaces including alternative theater seating layouts, presentation formats, and projection techniques. Transformation of the environment has always served as a key feature of politicized disability rights movements; even a marginally integrated collectivity cannot take shape if bodies that define the collective find themselves physically excluded from sites of political fomentation. Film festivals also transform public arenas and, ultimately, help to revise the cultural infrastructure of accessibility for all bodies with respect to which disability collective identities take shape. In order to understand the nature of disability...


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