My warning to anyone attending this year’s Focus Film Festival: Prepare for a 180-degree shift in the way you view the experience of living with a disability. “We’re about the human condition,” said festival director Mary Ann Weston, who has “re-focused” this year’s event. It celebrates the accomplishments of musicians, athletes and artists who overcome skepticism, hatred, physical challenges and the inability to communicate, accomplishing feats monumental even for those most able.
The 6th annual festival is a project of the Redding-based Far Northern Regional Center and supported by a collaboration of community organizations. Previously held in Redding, the annual festival opens Wednesday night and all day Thursday in Chico, with screenings throughout the year in the Redding area. (Find a list of festival events here.) The Focus Film Festival explores documentaries and feature films that “focus on the complexities of the human experience.”
This year’s films include “Music by Prudence,” the story of a young singer cast from her family; “Look to the Ground,” a day in the life of Bobby McMullen, a blind extreme mountain biker; “Noble Heights,” the chronicle of Austin Taylor, a man with cerebral palsy who climbs an 11,000-foot peak in Yosemite; “Shooting Beauty,” the personal transformation of a disabled fashion photographer; and “Portraits of Emotion,” four years in the life of a young artistic and autistic prodigy.
The festival also offers the filmakers’ short film competition and a series of unique workshops. This year’s workshops include “Voicing for Deaf Theater,” sponsored by the National Arts and Disability Center at UCLA and a “Visiting Director” workshop through the Center for Regional and Continuing Education at CSU, Chico.
Focus opens with “See What I’m Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary.” Los Angeles Director and Producer Hilari Scarl follows Bob, CJ, Robert and TL, well-known entertainers in the deaf community, as they fight to cross over to mainstream audiences.
I chatted with Hilari about her career, the film and the path to the Focus Film Festival.
Before I ask about “See What I’m Saying,” I’ve got to ask what it was like to be on the television series “On the Lot.”
It was pretty surreal to have Steven Spielberg select me out of thousands of directors. I had one of the best experiences being “On the Lot,” and having my work viewed by Garry Marshall, Carrie Fisher, Brett Ratner and Jon Avnet was such an honor. It was also exciting to create films that were seen by millions. The exposure helped my career.
You’ve had an incredible career in television and film. How did it feel to complete your first feature film?
A huge relief! Creating a documentary is an arduous labor of love, and it takes incredible determination and belief. I feel incredibly grateful to have made it to the finish line and to have the film so thoroughly embraced by audiences.
And, wow, the first open-captioned commercial film in American history. Tell us more about that.
There have been other films that have been captioned before for special events in the deaf community, but this is the first commercial film that is open captioned in mainstream movie theaters every time the film is screened, making it fully accessible to deaf, hard of hearing and mainstream hearing audiences. Open captions are like subtitles that are used in foreign language films, with the addition of audio descriptors such as [phone rings] or musical notes to indicate when music is playing. It is burned directly onto the picture image, unlike closed captions that you see on television that can be turned on or off.
Tell me a bit about the evolution of “See What I’m Saying.”
I toured with the National Theater of the Deaf (NTD) in 1995 with a cast of deaf actors, including Robert DeMayo, who starred as the lead in the show. The ensemble of actors were some of the most talented performers I had ever known, and have no doubt in my mind that many of them would have been silent film stars had they been born in an earlier era. That year on the road stayed with me as I continued my career in Los Angeles, and I had an opportunity in 2007 to introduce these incredibly talented and dynamic artists to the world in a way that was accessible through this documentary.
How was the film received on its latest tour?
The film has been a huge success. We received the Critics’ Pick in the New York Times, a rave review in Variety, along with two dozen other reviews, stories and features in television, radio and print around the world. We have received standing ovations from deaf audiences, hearing audiences and have screened in over 100 cities in 6 countries.
What led you to tackle the subject of deaf entertainers?
I saw the incredible talent in the deaf community that is largely unknown to mainstream audiences. These entertainers have been performing in front of thousands of deaf audiences, and even though their work is completely accessible, most people are unaware it even exists. My goal was to have hearing mainstream audiences fall in love with these artists and their work the same way I have, and to see them as entertainers who happen to be deaf rather than deaf entertainers.
Has “See What I’m Saying” been featured at any other disabilites-focused film festivals?
Focus was the first disability festival we screened a sneak preview/work in progress with, and the response was tremendous. It helped me refine the final cut of the film, which has been shown at disability film festivals in Australia (at “The Other Film Festival” in Melbourne) and will be seen in a disability film festival in Russia.
I have to say, I was pretty blown away by the film. What an inspirational group of people. What amazed you the most about Bob, CJ, Robert and TL?
Thank you! I have to agree that these entertainers are pretty amazing. Each has their own special gifts. Robert is my muse – his creativity is sheer genius. He also keeps me on my toes with his devilish antics and sense of humor. CJ is the heartbeat and guiding light for so many in the deaf community, as one of the most positive and influential role models in existence who has been an inspiration for so many. TL is one of the bravest individuals in the film, allowing herself to be so completely open and vulnerable during her very personal struggles with identity. There are many people with hearing loss who see themselves in TL, as someone who feels caught between the deaf and hearing worlds. And Bob is like Peter Pan – he never wants to grow up and just wants to have fun and play music – and pulls out all of the stops to have a good time.
Any new news about the group since the film was released?
I see them all quite frequently since they often tour with the film to do appearances after the screenings. They are all getting more bookings to perform live and hopefully many more opportunities will continue to come their way.
Have you screened any of the other entries in the Focus Film Festival? If so, any favorites?
I loved “Music By Prudence,” which I saw at last year’s International Documentary Association DocuDay right before they won the Oscar. But I have a special place in my heart for “Marwencol,” which blew me away. The producer, Matt Radecki, was our post production supervisor on “See What I’m Saying” and I think he is one of the smartest people in Hollywood.
What’s next for you?
I am producing a DVD of Robert DeMayo’s one-man show that I taped live called “Me Hear None” that will be out before the holidays, and gearing up for the film’s official DVD release in February. I am also producing a short film contest with Sprint Relay to encourage filmmakers to produce open captioned films. We’re flying the winners out to Hollywood in February to screen their film at our red carpet DVD release party at Universal, as well as winning a meeting with a studio and other prizes. It’s free to enter online – all of the rules are on our website at www.seewhatimsayingmovie.com. And lastly, I am attached to direct a few different projects – a short documentary and a couple of scripted feature films. I am looking forward to getting back to my comedic roots. I love making people laugh.
What: The 6th Annual Focus Film Festival
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 13); and 9:45 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday (Oct. 14).
Where: Sierra Nevada Big Room, 1075 East 20th Street, Chico (Wednesday) and Bell Memorial Auditorium, 517 Main Street, Chico (Thursday), plus future screenings in Redding, Orland, Paradise and Quincy.
Cost: $5 per person, per event; $15 Thursday all-day pass, available at Little Red Hen Garden and Gift Stores in Chico or at the door.
Click HERE for festival details, schedules and program.
Adam Mankoski is a recent North State transplant who feels completely at home here. He enjoys experiencing and writing about the people, places and things that embody the free spirit of the State of Jefferson. He and his partner own HawkMan Studios and are the creators of Redding’s 2nd Saturday ArtHop. Email your NorthState weekend events to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This portrait of Adam Mankoski was created by Shasta High School students Chance Norman and Kenzi Bell.
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