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Movie Series Shatters Image of the Disabled: disThis!

Walking, wheeling, limping, a variously abled audience enters the darkened screening room on Lafayette Street each month to see a movie with a difference.

Featuring a blind ballet dancer or disabled stripper one night, a gay comedian on crutches or disabled CIA agent the next, the films always portray characters with disabilities, but never the sentimentalized types moviegoers are used to seeing. And not the kind that infuriate film-lovers with disabilities.

“We don’t do heroic cripples. We don’t do pathetic cripples. This is disability without the diagnosis. No heroism necessary, no handkerchiefs required,” said Lawrence Carter-Long, curator of the series disThis!, and director of advocacy for the Disabilities Network of New York City.

Now in its second year, disThis! screenings take place once a month at Downtown Community Television Center (DCTV) at Lafayette and White Streets. The films, mostly foreign, have included the Belgian comedy “Aaltra”, a kind of road movie in wheelchairs; the British documentary “The Crippendales” about, yes, a troupe of disabled strippers; and a 30-minute show of pranks and sketches titled “I’m Spazticus!” The latter film features scenes such as an amputee running along a beach screaming “Shark! Shark!” and a mock music video by a rap group called Def Row, “rapped”” entirely in sign-language. Subtitles are provided for the hard of signing. The recent screening of a Japanese movie, “Josee, the Tiger and the Fish,” portrays love (and sex) between an able-bodied man and a woman who could not walk. Its ending decidedly unromantic.

“These movies get people with disabilities thinking about who they are and their place in the world,” said Alejandra Ospira, 26, who is wheelchair-bound with cerebral palsy. “And you get people who don’t have experience with disability to realize that we can make and be in controversial, edgy, kickass kinds of films.”

“The Real Helen Keller,” for example, attracted an audience of more than 70. A heated post-screening discussion continued where the provocative documentary left off, supplanting the popular, mythologized Keller figure with a whiskey-drinking socialist of unexpected sexual tastes.

Robert Pearson, 34, a special education teacher with mild cerebral palsy, said disabilities aside, the series has broadened his appreciation of independent cinema. “These are just great films,” he said.

But for a person with a disability, he added, they bring an added dimension. “I have a natural curiosity to see how different people manage,” he said. “I’m watching to see how does this person make their situation work.”

It is also gratifying, audience members said, to see disabled actors in leading roles. “You see that people with disabilities can act just as well as people without disabilities, and they can actually be in character,” said Raphael Rivas, who is visually impaired.

Though not every movie is well received (last month’s action flick was roundly panned by the audience), Carter-Long, who has cerebral palsy, says he tries to select inventive pieces that are remarkable for more than their inclusion of disabled characters. “There’s a hunger for quality work like this,” he said. “There’s an interest in hearing stories we haven’t heard told, seeing characters we haven’t seen, done in an authentic way. We try to give them that.”

At last month’s screening, Carter-Long teased the audience with a preview of the September coming attraction: “Dance to My Song,” a love triangle between a man, a severely disabled woman, and her care attendant. “I’m not going to tell you who wins,” he said.

disThis! screenings are on the first Wednesday of the month at DCTV, 87 Lafayette St. $5 suggested contribution. For more information, go to www.disthis.org.

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Reprinted courtesy of the Tribeca Trib, September 1, 2007: http://www.tribecatrib.com/

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