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Screenabilities in Sydney

  • Aurora Fearnley in Sydney

Aurora in Sydney

June 2017

British filmmaker Aurora Fearnley travelled to the Sydney Film Festival with her short film Struck. Here she blogs about her experience there as part of the Screenabilities strand, and explains what it's like to 'come out' as a disabled filmmaker.

Aurora writes:

I recently travelled to Australia for the premiere of my short film Struck. Struck is one of five films in a series called The Magic Hour produced by Sheffield-based 104 Films. With backing from Creative Skillset, these films champion disabled UK film talent and narratives.

There is a raised awareness around diversity in filmmaking. However, I personally feel that disability is so broad and complex that it should be given its own platform in film rather than being lumped into the umbrella of diversity. Therefore I was delighted to be a part of the Screenabilities strand at Sydney Film Festival this year.

The pros and cons of jet lag

I spent two days in transit getting to Sydney, which is intimidating for most and slightly terrifying for those traveling with extra needs. I was in good hands with Sydney Film Festival as they understood I would need more rest days than the average filmmaker and extended my stay. I have a five-day run-up to my premiere, which was a wise choice as the jet lag alone is killer.

The unexpected bonus from jet lag is my unusual sleep pattern. I’m wide-awake till 4am so I can really make the most of festival dinners, drinks and parties or what I professionally call ‘networking’.

As luck would have it on my first night, I find personal links with Feras Fayyad the director of documentary The Last Men in Aleppo. As I had previously lived and worked in Syria as a sound editor, we both had Syrian cast/crew friends in common, now living in London and Scandinavia. I just love the film community and its global connections.

On my sleepless nights I discover VIVID, a week of light and music installations throughout Sydney. Projections transform the Sydney opera house into stunning butterfly wings; the harbor has light shows; and the botanical gardens are a maze of fluorescent interactive games where art meets technology.

My first screening

I haven’t seen Struck in a cinema yet. As much as I mentally tell myself that I am excited and not nervous about the screening, I feel the nerves winning. Seeing the film with an audience is the most valuable moment for me. I can feel the reactions, sense the room collectively and it truly becomes seeing the film properly for the first time, through their experience. It’s a full house for the film and the audience turn-out in Sydney is excellent. I wasn’t expecting the opening night to have such a powerful effect on me. As I watched the programme, I realised I was seeing people like me represented in moving image and not overcoming disability as an obstacle in their narratives.

After the screening is a Q&A that extends into discussions with strangers at a nearby bar, but the big questions come the next day on a panel at the festival hub.

Screenabilities Panel

This panel was the absolute highlight of the festival for me. Screenabilties programmer, Sofya Gollan, discusses a theory that disability films are the new wave avant-gardes.

We all agree that disability-led narratives and character are going to bring fresh, controversial and authentic cinema. Sofya has the foresight to see the commercial success of disability narratives moving into the mainstream.

Perspective is a hot topic and we all discuss the challenges of being disabled as artists and how that affects our work pattern and collaborations. We talk about asking for help without feeling ashamed, managing resources to compensate for a disability and changing the structure of traditional film sets to accommodate us.

I talk about my own decision to 'come out' publically as disabled and how I had been afraid that an industry that prides itself on over-achieving would reject me for being weak. The stigma and fear of being judged by the label of my condition has always made me cautious to speak openly about it.

The courage came recently when I questioned why I didn’t know of filmmakers like me in the industry. I knew that visibility would lead to awareness and eventually social change. I had to be that change I wanted to see.

Continuing courage

Sydney has thrown down the gauntlet to other festivals in moving us all forward towards this new territory. They made sure the program venues were all accessible, that every Screenabilities film was Open Captioned, had audio description with room for assistance animals and wheelchairs. All discussions had sign language interpretation and the guide was available in braille.

To top it off, Screen New South Wales revealed pots of funding for three films by disabled filmmakers.

I’m leaving feeling incredibly lucky to be one of the seven international filmmakers included in Screenabilities. The festival has given me courage and hope. I wasn’t prepared to feel so connected and moved by my fellow filmmakers and their stories.

Once I touch down in the UK, it’s straight onto another flight up to Edinburgh Film Festival where Struck is screening with all the Magic Hour films. I’ll also be speaking at All Inclusive, an event the British Council is hosting with EIFF.