My Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival Story
When I was hired by the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival (organized by Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled and presented by Macy’s) late summer of 2014, much of Greater Cincinnati had never heard of it; and few people who I reached out to had any idea of the scope of the event or its value to our community – including me, admittedly. Even those who worked for the nonprofit host agencies did not realize the magnitude of what was to unfold.
People experiencing a disability or cognitive, genetic, physical and behavioral difference are often misunderstood. They are portrayed in photos and sometimes news stories as ‘less than’ normal or super human just by virtue of their own being. They are often not included, or at least not to the extent that they are people first with interests, hopes, dreams, talents, and even bad days, just like everybody else. Yet ‘they’ are about 20% of our population. And ‘they’ are the only minority population in which all people will be counted among them at some point in their lives.
The overarching goal of LADD and ReelAbilities in hiring me to serve as the director of public relations and communications was for me to support the unrelenting drive of determined volunteers and staff organizing the events by being a catalyst for change – to bring the community together in support of not only an event but a cause so powerful as to have impact on each and every one of us in a direct or indirect way. I wanted to get people in this region talking to each other and realizing that inclusion and togetherness is not about ‘other people’, it is about themselves and each other. I wanted to get people excited about ReelAbilities as a world class film festival, and come out to support and learn from it. The challenge was to do all of this with a very limited budget including for my own time, but I was up for the challenge as the cause is something very important to me.
For eight days beginning February 27, Greater Cincinnati was transformed into a film screening mecca with out-of-town celebrities helping Cincinnati explore our differences, and our shared humanity. Internationally acclaimed photographer Rick Guidotti; Michigan Supreme Court Justice Richard Bernstein; Project Runway fan favorite Justin LeBlanc; Cincinnati icons Ted Kremer, Drew Lachey, Nick and Nina Clooney, Dave Parker and Ken Anderson; former snowboarding champion Kevin Pearce; and actors Danny Woodburn, Kurt Yaeger, Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell, John Lawson, David DeSanctis (from Where Hope Grows), Jesus Sanchez-Velez (from Stand Clear of the Closing Doors); veterans SSG Travis Mills and Michael Schlitz; and Steve Wampler, who climbed El Capitan, where just some of the big name personalities who came to Cincinnati to be part of ReelAbilities. Academy Award Winning Actress Marlee Matlin was our keynote speaker for our Kick Off Celebration Luncheon that hosted hundreds.
The films of ReelAbilities were selected from some 500 plus submitted for jurying, many of them with wide international acclaim and awards to their name. Their common thread was that they celebrated the lives and stories of people experiencing disability. Many were shown with the film actors/subjects as special guests; and all screenings included a thought provoking discussion at the end.
I saw and still do see ReelAbilities as an opportunity to open dialogue and doors about topics that, for the most part, have been barricaded from our conversations – or at least in productive ways out of discomfort or lack of interest or personal connection.
There were so many strategies that I put into place (with help from wonderful volunteers and staff) to reach out to our community and pull people in through their personal stories and connections – their differences, and their shared humanity. And, in the end, it all came together to create a community that supported the film festival beyond our wildest dreams in classrooms, board rooms, businesses, entertainment venues, stores, nonprofits, and universities. Nearly 4500 people attended our events, with numerous film screenings having sold out.
The honest questions that were asked, the open answers that were shared, and the comments afterward from film goers told all of us that others grew from it too with expanded and even new perspectives.
There were so many people whose words and actions touched me in meaningful ways that it has been difficult to find the right words to capture its impact on me.
There was Kevin Pearce who took us into his life and shared his family tradition with all of us, ringing a Tibetan singing bowl to facilitate awareness of the moment – even at our formal Mingle with the Stars Gala. And, speaking of the Gala, anytime you have comedian actors in a room together and give them center stage to improvise, laughter is bound to follow. That was the genius idea (and somewhat brave too) of Festival Managing Director Susan Brownknight.
I remember the first time I met Richard Bernstein. He was so filled with genuine flattery of everyone he met. That, I came to learn quickly, is just his way. It is a gift and something I came to treasure about being around him.
We brought our VIPs to the Seacrest Studios at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center where kids could interact with them. It is there where I saw the infectious laughter of Danny Woodburn, Daryl ‘Chill’ Mitchell and John Lawson banter between each other; and again when Steve and Elizabeth Wampler sat side-by-side. Steve shared this message with hospital patients, “Don’t let anyone tell you, no, you can’t do that. Anything is possible.”
Justin LeBlanc promoted literacy by reading a book about inclusion to an entire gymnasium filled with school children; promoted creativity by helping students who are deaf to design and show fashions; and promoted abilities by speaking about his own personal story. Young students at Ohio Valley Voices also got to ask Justin lots of questions – like ‘When is your birthday?’, ‘What is your favorite color?’ and ‘Do you have a dog?’
While here, SSG Travis Mills , one of five surviving quadruple amputee veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, met for the very first time a critical care doctor who provided medical care after his 2012 injury during his air care transport from Kandahar to Bagram. Together we took them to tour UC Health’s Center for Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness or C-STARS where Major Dr. Laurae Rettig was trained. I’ll always remember Travis’ wicked sense of humor…and his rotating hand that he can make go round and round and round.
I always welcome Rick Guidotti’s bear hug. The lens from which he sees the world has opened eye across the globe to see the gift of each individual and the beauty in difference.
I treasured all of the time I got to spend with my friends, Danny Woodburn, and his wife, Amy Buchwald. They are two incredible people who I look up to as examples of role models when it comes to integrity and perseverance. Equaled with their talent is their fearlessness when it comes to standing up for what they believe in.
ReelAbilities gave me the opportunity to get to know and admire John Lawson, an encourager and leader, with a gift for bringing out the best in others.
Then there is the Festival Chair Kathleen Cail, Co-Chairs Sara Bitter and Kara Ayers; Managing Director Susan Brownknight; staff team – Jesse, Hannah, Molly, and Jen; and all of the committee volunteers for whom I have so much respect. They are such an awesome group of passionate, hard working, and dedicated people without whom this would not have been possible.
The Festival was about people coming together, standing up for and embracing eachother. It was about opening eyes and minds to see beyond people’s differences to what we all share – our humanity. I celebrate LADD for having the vision, foresight, courage and strength to create and organize such a community changing event. I am especially in awe of Susan Brownknight as our leader.
In her luncheon speech, Marlee Matlin looked out into the audience and shared, “We need to keep opening doors when people want them shut. We need to shine the light on ignorance when people want to keep us in the dark. And we need to make noise when they want to keep us quiet. But most of all, we need to keep on being ourselves, follow your heart and in the end accommodation will happen. We are the ones who can make it happen.”
Yes, Marlee, you are right we are. Let’s make our voices be heard!