Interview with JCC Manhattan’s Isaac Zablocki & ReelAbilities NYC Pt 1
Back in June, Jason sat down with Isaac Zablocki, the Film Director at the JCC Manhattan. Isaac is one those at the helm of the ReelAbilities Festival in NYC every year and has helped make it the success it is today.
JASON: WHY AND HOW DID YOU GET STARTED IN REELABILITIES?
ISAAC: I run the film program here at the JCC in Manhattan for close to ten years. I firmly believe that film is a tool not just for entertainment, but for change. I think it is one of the better tools to create social change. I was looking specifically for films for our program at the JCC that were underrepresented in the community and parts of our society that in general have voices that are not heard. I kept getting many films on the topic of disabilities that would come my way and I would show a few here and there. It was shocking to me how many films were not being shown widely on this topic. I felt that these films and this topic was extremely important. Therefore I thought that the idea of a film festival was the best way to present and elevate these films and go beyond the films in a deeper conversation. Then I met Anita Altman who had the same vision as I did and we created the festival together.
JASON: I KNOW YOU GO BEYOND JUST SHOWING THE FILMS. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE ACTIVITIES THAT REELABILITIES DOES BESIDES JUST SCREENING THE FILMS?
ISAAC: As part of ReelAbilities we require that all of our films are followed up with some sort of program. Often times as simple as a filmmaker or expert Q&A session after the film. It goes further than that – and some have been fairly creative. There have been a lot of panels of course, but sometimes there is even a performance that is able to bring out some of what the film was trying to express. It’s about finding a way to make sure that the film doesn’t just stay on the screen, but has some sort of interaction between the audience and the topic of the film.
JASON: HOW DO YOU CHOOSE WHICH MOVIES ARE SCREENED?
ISAAC: It’s a grueling process – we got over 300 submissions for ReelAbilities. We have a committee that goes over all of these films. We try to flesh out some of films that are not relevant to the festival – such as poor production quality or the film isn’t really in the tone ReelAbilities Film Festival. Most of the films submitted this year were actually fairly good and on topic. So we let 2 members of our committee watch every film – if both people liked the films, then the whole committee watches the film. From there we create a short list of 30 films and send that out to all of the partner organizations that present films. The organizations pick which films they want to show and eventually we have a list of 20 films in the festival. The JCC in Manhattan will often times take on a film that no one else is showing because we feel it’s important to ReelAbilities. Sometimes films we really liked don’t get picked at all because our partner organizations don’t feel as though they are as interesting as we did.
JASON: HOW MUCH GOES INTO PLANNING SUCH A LARGE FILM FESTIVAL – ESPECIALLY WITH ACCESSIBILITY ISSUES?
ISAAC: Well, a lot of good people help us coordinate which can be especially difficult when you have over 30 locations. But we also really push the locations to not just “sign the dotted line” and just be a location to screen films. We want the partner organizations and locations to be engaged in the entire festival and that’s why we have them be a part of the selection committee. They actually select our final list of films. And we really hope that our partners feel as though they’re part of the creation of the festival. We help them get the films and the speakers. We do require the locations to be a real film location and not just an office with a TV screen. And to be completely accessible both for the audience and the speakers. We do site visits and make sure that it’s up to our standards and make sure they can handle screening all of the high quality formats there are for film.
As for the planning, we not only need to make the locations accessible, but all the films need to be accessible and for that we often create captions, and audio description. Also, many of our festival guests need special accessibility and this can become a logistical nightmare, that we are proud to take on.
JASON: WHY DO YOU THINK FILM INSPIRES CHANGE? HAVE YOU SEEN THAT HAPPEN FIRST HAND?
ISAAC: First, we have to remember that film has a very low barrier for entry. Think about going to a Broadway show – whether it’s a $200 ticket or even a $30 ticket, there is still a lot of commitment with the time and the intermission, etc.
But with film – people go to the movies all of the time – they watch movies at home all of the time. It is very accessible and kind of a no-brainer for the masses. What I don’t think people realize is how deeply films impact. We don’t fully fathom how our behavior and opinions are influenced by film. Film impacts our personalities and our impression of the world. I remember the first time I kissed a girl – and suddenly music wasn’t playing and I thought oh, why did I expect music to play? Because it happens in the movies. Sometimes life mimics art, and we expect the world to play like it does in a movie. Therefore, I feel like movies have a great responsibility and too many movies do not take this responsibility seriously enough and impact with a negative message. There are positive movies out there that send a positive message and those are the ones we need to be watching.
Film is not like reading a book – Film is as close to envisioning reality as we can get. You also become emotionally involved with films. The music drives emotions and then the that fact you can have a close-up and see the actor’s face and see a character in a way that we rarely see in real life is very, very powerful.
Beyond the music and the visuals that impact, there is also storytelling which is a very strong way to penetrate people’s shell. It can make human beings from across the world seem very relevant. So specifically for ReelAbilities – this is crucial. Too many people don’t interact with people with disabilities and do not understand the world of people with disabilities. In our films, we get to see characters we would not normally see and we get to interact with them and have this emotional experience that you wouldn’t normally have.
After 2 hours of being in a movie you feel like you have gone through an experience with that character. And I think that disabilities is a side of the world that many people do not interact with. People in our audiences come out really moved and changed through the emotional experience and the impact of good storytelling. We know that our audiences are immediately and forever changed. Then the talk back or the follow up conversation is a way to really bring the event home and really take the experience off of the screen and back to reality, so no one can feel like it’s not just “something on the screen I don’t interact with” – it’s real.
JASON: WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITE FILMS? AND WHY?
ISAAC: One of my favorites this year was the film we opened up with called Little World. It’s a Spanish film about a young adult who travels around the world in a wheelchair on no money at all. What I really like about the film is the fact that he’s in a wheelchair is secondary to his character. He is traveling around the world on no money – the fact he is in a wheelchair can be seen as irrelevant. Still, sometimes it helps him – it’s sometimes serves as his ticket into places that normally people wouldn’t be able to. I like how the film is shameless. He’s not apologetic about his disability – it’s in your face. He’s not someone that feels the need to hide it or that it limits him. He uses it in a very pitiless way. I find his character exciting and the story behind how he became this character with this kind of adventurous life is riveting.
I also always like our collection of short films. Sometimes our filmmakers don’t have a big enough budget to make a full feature film. Some of our best films every year are in the short collection. We try to show as many as possible – we showed eight of them this year. Short films also lend to so much diversity. It’s a great way to really get a taste of what ReelAbilities is about. You might see a film about developmental disabilities and physical disabilities and you’ll see documentaries, and narratives, and dramas, and comedies. It really shows a full spectrum of what ReelAbilities is.
Part 2 to come this weekend!
Jason Harris, co-founder of Jason’s Connection, was the Interviewer and Contributor for this article.