Oska Bright Film Festival is offering a bold, inspiring vision for how disability can be represented on and off the screen.
The lights are dimmed, rather than off. The volume levels are a little lower than usual for a cinema. There is a BSL interpreter present and everything is subtitled. When the films begin, you’re free to make as much noise as you like. The atmosphere in the room is joyous: the audience cheers, laughs and cries. If you need some time out or five minutes of fresh air, that’s okay too: you’re allowed to come and go as you please. This is a relaxed screening. This is Oska Bright, the world’s leading learning disability film festival.
The biannual event is based in March in Brighton and Lewes, East Sussex, with satellite screenings all over the UK, from the London Barbican to the DCA in Dundee. Originally established in 2004, the festival was started by a group of learning disabled artists. Fed up with not feeling represented by the programming at film festivals and frustrated at not having a platform to showcase their work on the big screen, the idea for Oska Bright came easily: “It’s like the Oscars,” says Lizzie Banks, the festival’s producer, “But in Brighton”.
This year the festival celebrated its tenth anniversary with a bold new programme from the world’s best learning disabled filmmakers. Its films spanned every genre, from comedy and sci-fi, to documentary and dance. Its audience was told only to expect the unexpected: see Mattricide (Gemma Rigg, 2021), a stop-motion animation about murderous mattresses, or Filters (Lianne Mackessy, 2020), a drama about a young woman with Down’s Syndrome who decides to dupe her ableist employers after a succession of frustrating job interviews. The films are by turns funny, moving and rebellious, with only one common theme: that they are all by or about learning disabled or autistic people.
“We want to see people in creative control,” says Lizzie. “We want to see people leading, whether that’s in front of or behind the camera. We want learning disabled peoples’ stories at the forefront.” If it might sound obvious today that people with learning disabilities should be allowed to tell their own stories, it hasn’t always been that way: Hollywood has a long and problematic history of non-disabled actors playing learning disabled or autistic roles. There was Dustin Hoffman as Rain Man, Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump and only last year Maddie Ziegler playing the autistic lead character in Music (2021), Australian singer Sia’s debut feature. Ziegler herself is not autistic, which understandably upset and outraged the autistic and disabled communities. The film was panned by critics and called out by the public as under-researched, inauthentic “inspiration porn”. Worst of all, it was “cripping up”: the pervasive phenomenon in which a non-disabled actor plays a disabled role.
What’s the Oska Bright stance on “cripping up”? Lizzie shakes her head: “It’s an absolute no way.” As are the sob stories,