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Cannes Disability & Inclusion Panel

Updated: Feb 14

With the last Cannes Film Festival delayed until July 2021, it feels like just yesterday that FilmGate Miami was meeting with filmmakers and technologists on the Croisette. But curtain-up on the 75th installment of the world’s largest film festival looms just a month away. And so, here at FilmGate, we’re taking a moment to preview a new and underappreciated resource of the Festival de Cannes and its Marché du Film: virtual panels. The market’s remote roundtables play a vital role making Cannes accessible to a diversity of filmmakers around the world.

To help us gear for the online side of Cannes, contributor Jon Fougner showcases a standout exemplar from last year’s festival: Disability & Inclusion in Film: The New Norm, hosted by the festival’s market as part of Think-Film’s impACT series. The panel brought together award-winning filmmaker Ashley Eakin, talent agency CEO Keely Cat-Wells, Avatar 2’s CJ Jones, NBC casting guru Grace Wu, and Paralympics exec Craig Spence. The speakers shared their passion for including those of all abilities in the industry, both in front of the camera and behind it. They painted a future where actors and audiences alike can focus on universal human stories rather than disability. And they mapped out what they’re building, day in and day out, to make that vision a reality.

For members of the FilmGate community attending Cannes–whether in person or remotely–we hope that this look back at a highlight of the digital side of last year’s fest inspires you to include web panels in your run of show.

“A girl born with one arm gets set up with a guy who has one hand - and she is pissed.” So goes the log-line of SXSW prize-winning short Single, directed by Ashley Eakin. Having tired of “angelic portrayals” of the disabled that rob them of the space to be human, Eakin wrote Single as an “anti-romcom” featuring a strong female lead. Eakin and her fellow panelists at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival expressed enthusiasm for the increasing authenticity—and inclusiveness—that are, by fits and starts, coming to mark the representation of disabled people in film and television.

“Every day [we’re] battling against a lack of accessibility,” said panelist Keely Cat-Wells, Founder and CEO of L.A.-based C Talent.

“Everyone says diversity is a seat at the table but what if we don’t have access to the door?” she posed. C Talent represents high-profile deaf and disabled artists and athletes and influencers with the goal of seamlessly integrating disability across the board, she said. “We also want to create superstars who just so happen to be disabled.” Because artists should be able to dedicate their time to honing their craft rather than educating colleagues about disability, studios should employ disability officers, she added.

Cat-Wells recounted acquiring—not unusually—a disability at age 17 and realizing that “the world was no longer made with me in mind.” She then lost a job “not because of my disability but because of Hollywood’s ableism” and set out to help others overcome such prejudice.

While C Talent gets disabled talent in the studio door, another Cat-Wells venture, Zetta Studios, gets them upstairs—literally. Her clients had been offered to be carried up stairs because producers didn’t book an accessible venue, and in the service of little more than “inspiration porn,” she said. She touts Zetta’s permits-pending company town in northeast England as the world’s first “fully accessible” film studio, embodying the “four pillars of access, which is cognitive, sensory, communication, and physical.”

C Talent client CJ Jones emphasized the importance of authenticity in bridging superficial differences and building a more inclusive filmmaking community. Jones, a deaf actor appearing in the forthcoming Avatar 2, described landing a part in Baby Driver written for a hearing actor by being himself. “The disabled community is not separate from the able-bodied community,” he said. “I never saw myself as a deaf person, really. I just see myself as a person who happens to be deaf.” When people are scared by his deafness like a “deer in the headlights,” Jones uses comedy to take the spotlight off his physical difference and relax children and adults alike. Cat-Wells likewise noted that “non-disabled people are oftentimes so scared to say the wrong thing that they don’t say anything at all,” whereas they should “turn those doubts into questions.” Eakin noted that she herself had avoided the disabled until becoming disabled herself.

Jones’s SignWorld Studios creates jobs for deaf people in front of the camera and behind it.

“And my dream is to build a bridge, so that people can walk right across, back and forth, no problem,” said Jones.

Moderator Wendy Mitchell, a journalist and film festival consultant, took the measure of the bridge as it stands today. She pressed Jones with a hypothetical: suppose the script simply includes “a banker in his 40s”—would a casting director consider a deaf, blind, or wheelchair-using actor? Progress is a slow process, Jones acknowledged, but “you can see the light is kind of coming on. . . . Three years ago, that would never have happened.”

Eakin urged more such inclusiveness in casting. “Stories with disabilities do very well . . . people win Oscars when they are in these stories, we just have to start including actors who actually have the disabilities in those stories.” To improve access, Mitchell pointed to FWD-Doc, a toolkit associated with Doc Society and Netflix with a case study based on Oscar-nominated Crip Camp. She noted that the toolkit is helpful beyond documentaries.

Like Jones, Eakin aspires to normalize disability not just in front of the camera but also behind it.

Her hope is that the industry can eventually move past identity stories and not think twice about having disabled people in, for instance, Marvel blockbusters.

Eakin herself, who has a bone disease and resulting limb difference, recently directed a “period World War II piece,” she said. Cat-Wells likewise heralded the day that disabled storytellers will be able to tell stories that “normalize inclusion” and have nothing to do with disability, and that, in any event, avoid grim caricatures like the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Captain Hook.

NBC casting executive Grace Wu flagged hospital drama New Amsterdam as a show where the setting inherently normalizes diversity of ability. She singled out KMR as a talent agency with whom she often works to cast actors with disabilities. Like Mitchell and her fellow panelists, Wu heralded the economic opportunity in improving inclusiveness. “Agents—they’re killers, right?” she quipped, and they will respond to demand for more inclusive representation. She tipped that NBC’s fall line-up features disabled actors in two new shows. One, La Brea, a Lost-esque tentpole, features an accident amputee portrayed as a “real teenager,” an “incredibly authentic” “pain in the ass to her parents” played by an inexperienced actor destined to be a breakout star, Wu trumpeted. She said that the industry’s past tendency to cast able-bodied people as disabled was not out of “malice,” but happened because inclusion was not yet “top of mind.” Now, the intention would be to cast a disabled actor in the role, she added.

Wu exhorted her colleagues in the casting profession: “Make the effort to actually educate yourself about the talent pool out there.” Doing so actually became easier while working remotely because actors have not needed to travel to New York or Los Angeles for generals, opening up access to gatekeepers and vice versa, she said.

The talent pool on which panelist Craig Spence is focused is the 4,400 athletes from 168 countries, including a refugee team, competing in the Tokyo Paralympics. As Director of Media and Communications for the International Paralympic Committee, Spence stated that over 4 billion people watch the Paralympics. The opportunity is to change hearts and minds in such a massive audience because sports switches the mentality from inability to ability, he noted. He cited a statistic that one in three Brits changed their attitude towards the disabled because of watching the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Like Wu, Spence said that while inclusiveness has improved across gender identity, sexual orientation, and race and ethnicity, disability has been overlooked—and the time has come to prioritize it.

He pointed audience members to the documentary Rising Phoenix (available on Netflix) and tipped Markus Rehm—who is nicknamed “The Blade Jumper”—as a particularly thrilling athlete to watch in Tokyo. Spence added that 1.2 billion people, or one in seven, live with disabilities. Representation should match those numbers, he urged. With such quantitative inclusiveness, qualitative authenticity can finally move from the exception to the norm.

Video excerpts of Disability & Inclusion in Film: The New Norm and other Cannes Film Festival panels are available on YouTube.

Meet the Author

Amanda Edwards / Stringer via Getty Images

Jon Fougner advised on film investments at Goldman Sachs and launched Facebook Film. His producing credits include Her Composition (100% on Rotten Tomatoes) and The Worst of the Worst: Portrait of a Supermax Prison. Alongside Tony-winner Andy Sandberg, he is a member of the producing team for Application Pending, winner of the Broadway World Award for Best Off-Broadway Play.

For 15 years, Jon has supported the Sundance Film Festival, including as a technologist and a contributing journalist to IndieWire. His reporting has showcased emerging talent, ranging from his early coverage of Damien Chazelle’s short Whiplash to that of Ava DuVernay’s distribution strategies before her 2017 Oscar nomination.

Jon’s speaking engagements include Variety’s “Future of Film” Summit, the Sundance Film Festival, the Festival do Rio keynote, and the annual conference of the Producers Guild of America. He has been a repeat guest speaker at Cannes, where his talks on online distribution and social marketing have been covered by, among others, The Hollywood Reporter.

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