Celeb-spotting at ReelAbilities Festival

Two women and a man wearing a cap smile at the camera making a sign language gesture

Clare-Louise English and Jo Sargeant from Hot Coals meet the Oscar/Bafta-winning actor Troy Kotsur

Jo Sargeant, a neurodivergent writer/producer and actor and co-creative director of Hot Coals Productions, headed to the ReelAbilities festival in New York earlier this year and sent us this blog

Hello, I'm Jo Sargeant a neurodivergent writer/producer and actor and co-creative director of Hot Coals Productions with writing and producing partner Deaf Director Clare-Louise English. I have been in the industry professionally since I was 12 year old, starting as an Actor and gradually adding disciplines as I discovered more areas of Storytelling which I fell in love with.

At Hot Coals we started our journey in Theatre with a passion for storytelling which brings both Deaf and hearing audiences together in a shared experience. In 2020 we took the leap into film with our first short, My Darling Christopher which told the true story of a boy who lost his hearing at the start of WWII and was evacuated to a Deaf school in the countryside. This film went on to over 20 festivals around the world, won seven awards and gained a further 10 nominations. Following the success of My Darling Christopher we started a writer's development programme during lockdown which was funded by Arts Council England, for Deaf, disabled and/or neurodivergent (DDN) writers to work alongside us to develop a collection of short film scripts called 'Talking Bodies'. These scripts were our response to Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, but told from the DDN perspective and including DDN characters. We took 12 writers through a developmental period and then optioned seven at the end and from those we have made two of the films so far - We Care by Steph Lacey and Indefinitely by Karl Knights.

Both of these films are currently doing the festival circuit and We Care was selected to premier at the ReelAbilities festival in New York this April. We Care is a brilliantly written piece by the wonderful Steph Lacey, a disabled writer and actress, who also stars in the film. The film is about a newly disabled woman, Annie, who is let down by the UK care system and ends up being abused by a male carer. The piece, while starting off out loud funny, takes a real nose dive into darkness, as would be in real life, and does so with a hard thud. The set up of the film, as with the Talking Heads collections, is with our lead characters talking straight to camera, and relies on the storyteller to describe what has happened, while the filmmakers build her world around her.

Taking We Care to ReelAbilities was truly a wonderful experience. When we were choosing festivals to submit to we wanted to make sure it went to a variety of festivals which were both mainstream and had a Disability Focus, but ReelAbilities was right at the top of our list as the leading disabled centred and led festival with a wonderful reputation. We were not disappointed!

Not only really well organised and structured, ReelAbilities was truly accessible. The team went above and beyond for everyone who attended. It felt like a hugely supportive and really inclusive environment where we were able to meet other filmmakers at a filmmaker's brunch and events organised after the screenings. There were Q&A's after the screenings which were hosted by fantastic hosts who used the right language and had clearly really watched the films closely raising questions which really explored both themes and filmmaking process. As well as screenings, there was an industry summit where we talked about access, filmmaking and storytelling in other mediums. It felt so exciting and gave us all the opportunity to learn and connect. To top it all they also held a pitching competition which allows filmmakers to pitch projects for two different financial awards to help make or finish their films. This in itself was a great moment to witness as filmmakers to see how others do it and shows how the festival invests in the DDN filmmaking community.

From an access perspective, the festival not only supplied communications support in different formats and held the whole festival in a brilliantly accessible location, but they also made audio description files for those who didn't already have them, supplying DCP's for filmmakers to use going forward.

A panel of four people holding microphones face an audience in front of a big cinema screen

Good Bad Thing exec producer Steve Way, actor Brett Dier, Danny Kurtzman (Actor, writer, producer) and host Lawrence Carter Long

We made some wonderful contacts while we were there and have already planned to connect with some local ones here in the UK and others in California, should we make it across there in the future. It really was such a rewarding experience and I couldn't recommend the festival enough to other filmmakers as an experience. Added to this the quality of the films were outstanding - quite possibly the highest standard I have seen across both mainstream and DDN led.

Two particular films which stood out for me were the film Bear made by a Scotland-based filmmaker Kate Hammer about living with ADHD, which was both hilarious and poignant for me as someone with ADHD; and the closing feature film Good Bad Things by Shane D Stranger about a young man with Muscular dystrophy who tries online dating for the first time.

I really couldn't recommend ReelAbilities enough to other filmmakers and really hope to be able to go again with future films.

A man in a suit standing on a red carpet beside a woman signing

Isaac Zablocki, Director of ReelAbilities, giving out awards at the Festival's last night alongside an interpreter

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