Entertainment & Culture

Disability behind and in front of the camera

How many disabled people do you imagine are film makers? Not many we suspect. Well Athena Stevens, a film maker herself, aims to change that. After all, how are we going to ensure disability is properly represented in films or on TV if there aren’t disabled people behind the camera as well as in front of it?

I’m a professional film maker who has never touched a camera. Well, that’s a lie, I’ve been know to pick them up and move them out of the way, my unco-ordinated athetoid fingers setting of the record button and capturing images of my pant leg with recording the sounds of my cameraman asking me to put it down, CAREFULLY!

But on the whole I avoid touching the machine. I was first a writer, a naturally born one who woke up at four thirty in the morning even at the age of 14 to write poetry and short stories. At university I studied acting, after a two year working relationship with the Royal Shakespeare Company, I moved to London to pursue my dreams of becoming a writer and an actor.

Film making was never in the cards as far as I was concerned. But that was because I only partly saw a revolution that needs to happen, a revolution to get disabled people represented more on TV, something I see more fully now.

The next several years are going to prove to be key in establishing the role of individuals with disabilities in the media. The recent announcement that the Director General at the BBC has set a goal to increase onscreen disabled talent is one example of this.

Writers are trying, albeit tentatively, to incorporate individuals with disabilities into their stories. Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, New Tricks, Silent Witness – these are just a few of the small handful of prime-time shows that have successfully incorporated actors with physical disabilities. Although this is far from enough, it is a huge number compared to where we were just a decade ago when their was… nothing as far as I can recall.

If we push hard enough, continuing to produce actors who will grab whatever training they can get, develop a very thick skin, and pursue the highest standards of excellence in their work, then we will continue to see more representation on screen.

With over 20% of Britons considering themselves to be physically disabled, and the shift in popular perception of disabled people, thanks largely to the most recent Paralympic and Invictus Games, it’s no longer a matter of whether actors with disabilities will ever smash through the screen into popular media, it’s a matter of who and when.

Which brings me to the part of the revolution that I didn’t see coming back in 2006, but that is serving to scare the pants off of a good many mainstream producers including those in Hollywood: the ease of technology allowing just about anyone to create a film. The majority of my first film was shot and edited on an iPad, and then in less than two months later recreated by Channel 4.

And this is just an example – entire feature films are now being shot and edited using an iPhone and an external microphone bought off Amazon for under thirty quid. Everything from production to distribution has been placed in the hands of the common man thanks to YouTube, Vimeo, camera phones, and programs such as iMovie.

If you don’t believe me when I say that this potential has the establishment terrified, just take a look at what films are being made right now. The reason why so many films are dependent on CGI and star power is because those big-wig producers know that those are the only types of films left that can’t be produced by someone on a phone.

Simply put, creating film is rapidly being democratised. There is no reason why a disability should stop someone wanting to make a great feature film or web series. Some series on YouTube have viewer ratings that turn the BBC green with envy.

The film world is changing, and you can get in on it. That is if you are willing to pass over the more traditional routes, work very hard, and be extremely creative. But then again, if you have a disability, chances are you have a handle on those requirements on a daily basis anyway. Se if you’re keen, keep reading for my top tips on film making:

Find a group you can work with

It is a very rare film that can be made with a crew of one, and if you have a disability you’re most likely going to need people to work with. I’m a film maker who has never held a camera or a mic. I’ve found two film makers who are great at shooting and recording as well as loving to help build off my ideas. The three of us work together consistently – they teach me about the technology and I help them flesh out ideas for their own projects. We invest in each other, knowing that when we each develop our own skills, we will all make better films.

Start small…. tiny actually

You don’t need a massive budget to make  a good film, you just need a great story. Most mobile phones have cameras that shoot in HD, which means most of what you shoot on your phone can look great on a large screen. Start by looking and the assets you have, such as locations, equipment, people and talent to support you. Gear your story to what’s already surrounding you instead of making a list of ideal stuff you’d want to have to make a film. Dreaming big for the future means being practical now.

Your film is not about disability

I know you might think it’s about disability, but it doesn’t have to be. Just like Invictus Games weren’t really about disability, but strength and coming through adversity. The reason why producers and distributors are hesitant about disabled film makers is because they think the film has to centre around disability too. Let disability be a metaphor in your film, make it a factor that adds complication to a problem, or even use it to add tension, but you don’t have to make it the focus. Disability is a facet of the human experience, and films are there to show us just how multifaceted the human experience is.

Don’t just watch something, analyse it

Everything from The Godfather to Friends, or Frozen to Game of Thrones offers you a wealth of information about storytelling and filming. The trick is not to be a passive viewer. Why is this scene needed? Why is it lit this way? What do the shadows say? The music? The colours? These are the types of questions you should be thinking about every time you are in front of a screen. Watching TV and film is only a waste of time if you’re not actively watching it.

Don’t be precious about film making

It’s been said that everybody has ten bad films in them, the trick is to get them out of the way. Your job, right now, should be to create a body of work and get it out there on YouTube, not to make films that will blow everyone away. Challenge yourself to make a short film in a weekend, or feature length film (over 70 minutes) for under £500. You should not be even thinking you need top of the line filming equipment if you don’t know the limitations of what your camera phone can do.

By Athena Stevens

Check out…

Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong at the Cockpit Theatre
Sweet Taboo: theatre breaking down barriers
Graeae Theatre Company campaigns to #SaveTheILF Will you join them?

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