New Visions: The Bay Area ReelAbilities Disability Film Festival

by Tom di Maria

Can you imagine never having seen somebody like you in a movie? If you are a person with Downs Syndrome or Cerebral Palsy, this may very likely be the case. But that is part of the power of film … it has the ability to transport us into a world beyond what we have experienced, through compelling narrative structures and enticing visual language. 

Reelabilities bay area logo

Finding films featuring lead characters with disabilities is about to become easier with the launch of Creative Growth Art Center’s Bay Area ReelAbilities Disability Film Festival. Yet the best news about the festival is that the films provide not just self-confirmation for people with disabilities, but stimulating narrative stories and documentaries for all viewers.


Take for example Steve Wampler, a Bay Area man with Cerebral Palsy who climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan by pulling himself up the mountain—doing 20,000 pull-ups, one after the other. He did this to demonstrate to young people with disabilities what they could really achieve. It’s a compelling adventure, and an exciting film. Steve will join us in person at our opening night film, Wampler’s Ascent .

Creative Growth’s five-day ReelAbilities Film Festival takes place in Oakland and San Francisco from October 15-19, 2014. It’s an international showcase of award-winning films that will bring interesting guests, compelling stories and cinematic excellence to the New Parkway Theater in Oakland, and the de Young Museum and New People Theater in San Francisco.

Festival highlights include Ocean Heaven , featuring Jet Li in a major dramatic role as a father of a young man on the autistic spectrum. In this touching father-and-son adventure, he negotiates teaching his son the life skills needed to negotiate the world on his own.


Emerging Polish filmmaker Andrzej Jakimowski’s Imagine  is a compelling and visually stunning story with central characters who are blind. It’s a love story based on trust and passion, surrounded by the central theme of setting aside the use of a cane and learning to negotiate the world using other sensory perceptions.


Local filmmaker Ken Paul Rosenthal’s Crooked Beauty  investigates the intersection between genius and madness. It’s a stunningly beautiful documentary and approaches its theme with poetic inspiration.

In Getting Up , a street artist with Lou Gehrig’s disease loses control of his body; yet learns how to draw with his eyes. The technology that allows this to happen comes from the acclaimed Los Angeles-based Imagine Studio, and the screening offers a discussion with the co-founder of this project.

Have you ever seen a romantic film with a Downs Syndrome leading man? Well, we have two of them. Me Too!  from Spain and the American Girlfriend  address the rarely explored issues of love, romance and longing in the lives of people with disabilities.


Our closing night film and party presents Betsy Bayha’s Outsider: The Life and Art of Judith Scott , a documentary about one of Creative Growth’s most notable artists. Her life is as compelling as her art. After decades in an institution, without outside contact or any learned language, Scott came to Creative Growth and spent 20 years creating a body of sculptural work that will be presented in a significant one-woman show at the Brooklyn Museum this October.

The festival is being produced by Creative Growth Art Center. Creative Growth is the oldest and largest art center for people with disabilities in the world. Many of our 160 artists are now world-renowned, including the first and only three artists with developmental disabilities to have their work acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Our philosophy is to nurture the creative spirit in people with disabilities to allow for personal growth and communication, but to set a goal of high artistic achievement for every artist in our studio.

Creative Growth Art Center is partnering with the noted New York-based film festival ReelAbilities to present a Bay Area version of the acclaimed festival. Creative Growth will bring to ReelAbilities the same forty-year commitment to aesthetic quality and artistic achievement that we have developed in our Oakland art center. Advancing the contributions and understanding of people with disabilities is very important, but in an art and film context, quality comes first.


The festival includes free screenings and complimentary museum admission to the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. The weekend afternoon screenings offer a great excuse for a visit to the park and museum. On Saturday and Sunday, we present the documentaries Shooting Beauty  and Warrior Champion . Sunday’s Warrior Champion  features the incredible story of four Iraq war vets, who overcome significant physical injuries to become successful Paralympic athletes. A young athletic from the film comments that she is often called a hero because of her war injury, yet it has opened the door for her to a new path of personal achievement and growth. She also went to say that she was very grateful that the government took care of her and the she did not have to get an independent company like to handle her case, that peace of mind really helped with recovery, she said.

Most screenings also present the opportunity for dialogue and interaction with filmmakers, notable guests and audience members. Special guests accompanying our screenings include:

Steve Wampler: The Bay Area native with Cerebral Palsy who climbed El Capitan (Wampler’s Ascent ).

Sascha Altman Dubrai: Author of Maps to the Other Side: The Adventures of a Bipolar Cartographer (Crooked Beauty ).

Elliot Kotek: Co-founder of Not Impossible Labs, the company that offers stunning technology to support human endeavor (Getting Up ).

In addition, Courtney Bent will discuss Shooting Beauty , a documentary on her adaptive camera and photography project for young adults with disabilities. She’ll have just finished a two-day workshop with young people with disabilities at Oakland Tech High, and we hope to have some of these participating students at the screening too. [Editor’s note: In addition to ReelAbilities programs, the New Parkway will also be presenting the short movie showcase “Un(dis)ing Our Abilities” on Saturday, October 16.]

Each film and guest brings a particular insight into the life of a person with a disability. That part of our advocacy mission is clear, yet first and foremost, this is a film festival. So come for the opening and closing night parties, special guests, the rare chance to see a great film that might not make it to your local theater, and be ready to be transported from your seat into the magic of a compelling new vision.

Tickets are available in advance and at the door.  You can view trailers from every film and reserve your tickets now at

Tom di Maria. Photo by Seymour Magazine.

Tom di Maria. Photo by Seymour Magazine.

Curator and filmmaker Tom di Maria is the director of Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, California and a former assistant director at the Berkeley Art Museum.  Exhibitions of Creative Growth artists include “Create” (2011) at the Berkeley Art Museum and “Glossalia: Languages of Drawing” at the Museum of Modern Art.

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