ReelAbilities Kicks Off on Upper West Side

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Festival showcases films that portray people with disabilities in new ways
By Beth Mellow Tales of European brothels and sex industry workers will hit the big screen as the ReelAbilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival kicks-off at the JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side and at 23 other venues throughout New York City and surrounding areas on March 7th. The festival, which is in its fifth year, will feature three films that focus on themes of sexuality and disability, among a wide selection of documentaries, shorts, and narrative films on a variety of topics.
Come as You Are, directed by Geoffrey Enthoven, and winner of The European Choice Awards People's Choice Award, tells the story of three young men with disabilities on a quest to lose their virginity. Six Points About Emma, directed by Robert Perez Toledo, is a feature film about a blind woman determined to get impregnated, while the documentary Scarlet Road, directed by Catherine Scott, follows Australian sex worker Rachel Wotton, who specializes in working with a population with various disabilities. Additionally, a dinner at the JCC Manhattan on Friday night will pay homage to director Ben Lewin, and his award-winning film The Sessions.

Co-founder and director Isaac Zablocki feels that the festival provides a much-needed opportunity to explore the often overlooked subject matter.

"It's such an important topic-sexuality and disability-and it is often kept hidden in corners," he said.

It was these types of conversations that Zablocki wanted to inspire when he first created the ReelAbilities film festival five years ago. Working as the film director at the JCC Manhattan, Zablocki often had the opportunity to collaborate with his colleagues on programs for people with disabilities and began to gain a better understanding of this diverse community. He also started collecting films that were directed by or featured storylines around individuals living with disabilities. Wanting to share this wealth of content with others, Zablocki sought out the help of Anita Altman, an executive at the UJA Federation, to get the festival off the ground.

"My goal was not to show blockbusters but to bring films to the community that they otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to see and that would potentially impact the way people think and feel," Zablocki said.

Stephen Wampler, who is the subject of one of this year's featured documentaries, Wampler's Ascent, directed by Jacques Spitzer, shares the same goal as Zablocki. Wampler, who has cerebral palsy and is wheelchair bound, invited Spitzer to film him as he took on the daunting feat of climbing the famous El Capitan Mountain in Yosemite Park (see sidebar). His main goal was to impress upon others that even living with disabilities, it is still possible to realize a dream. He explained, "I just want to help kids set goals and aspirations and believe that they can achieve anything if they put their mind to it."

Wampler, who is California-based and runs a camp that provides outdoor experiences for children with disabilities, is also one of the few United States-based participants in this year's festival. Zablocki pointed out that this might have to do with the way in which Hollywood views disability.

"It's a frustration that we screen more films from Europe," he said. "The American film industry is more commercial and the topic of disability is often something they don't feel will do as well at the box office."

While we are not yet seeing a bevy of wide-release movies about disability in this country, the festival has succeeded in reaching an ever-widening audience of filmmakers and fans. In its first year, the selection committee, which is comprised of film professionals, individuals living with disabilities, and everyday film buffs, received one hundred submissions from around the world. This year, they received closer to three hundred. In addition, with the support of the Saul Schottstein Foundation B, the festival has expanded to 13 other cities across the United States.

The festival, which runs through March 12th, will also include panels and special events, in addition to screenings. For further information and to purchase tickets, visit

Stephen Wampler was in a rut. He had created a successful foundation that helped kids with disabilities experience the outdoors, but he wanted to reach many more people with his message that you can achieve any goal you set for yourself if you work really hard for it.

He was on a trip to Yosemite Park when inspiration struck him. He explained, "I was sitting at the base of El Capitan and I was thinking it wouldn't be hard to climb that."

Wampler, at this point in his life, had never climbed a mountain. He is also wheelchair-bound and has cerebral palsy. Nevertheless, he took on a rigorous training schedule that had him spending five hours a day at the gym five days a week for more than a year in preparation for his climb. He also invited videographer Jacques Spitzer to film his experiences for a documentary debuting at the Reelabilities: NY Disabilities Film Festival later this week, Wampler's Ascent.

Now that he has taken on this grand feat, Wampler has no future plans to climb mountains. He has another goal in mind

"The most daunting challenge for me now is getting the movie out there and spreading the word to kids with disabilities that they can do anything if they set their mind to it," Wampler said. "That's more challenging than climbing El Capitan."
Wampler's Ascent will be screened at the JCC Manhattan on the Upper West Side and three other locations in the New York-area.

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