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Neurodiverse Filmmakers and Narratives Take the Spotlight in Two New York-Based Film Festivals

Screenwriter Tony Spiridakis wasn’t familiar with the Museum of the Moving Image’s Marvels of Media Festival — which celebrates the work of mediamakers with autism — before penning his star-studded film Ezra, about parenting a child on the spectrum. But he quickly became a supporter after MoM founder and former AMC Networks CEO Josh Sapan reached out.

“[The festival] understands the power of empathy and the undeniable beauty of diversity,” says Spiridakis, who now sits on its advisory board alongside Ezra director Tony Goldwyn. “It shows the unfiltered, authentic expression that comes from the unique perspectives of autistic mediamakers, something Hollywood and all artists can benefit from.”

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Marvels of Media, taking place until tomorrow in Queens, joins the ReelAbilities Film Festival, which runs April 3 through 10, and is hosting Ezra’s New York premiere on opening night. Both of the film festivals are dedicated to disabled filmmakers and narratives showcasing characters with a disability. “A lot of these films do not get the attention they deserve because Hollywood feels that [such a film] is unmarketable, or that it’s doing things differently. But it’s the opposite. It’s doing things differently, and that’s why it’s marketable,” says ReelAbilities co-founder Isaac Zablocki.

While autism, along with deafness and cerebral palsy, tends to be featured more frequently in film and TV than other disabilities, according to Zablocki, it still makes up a scant number of the total narratives in mainstream Hollywood, which has a long history of misrepresenting neurodivergence through dehumanizing stereotypes. That’s partly a byproduct of the disabled and neurodivergent community rarely being extended creative opportunities or space within the film industry, including the festival circuit, to tell their own stories.

But the presence of creatives like Spiridakis, who has a son on the spectrum, and Danimation Entertainment CEO Dani Bowman, who stars in Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum, signals a small but notable shift in how the film industry respects and invests in neurodivergence, especially creators with autism. “Through my journey in animation and my appearance on Love on the Spectrum, I’ve witnessed firsthand the impact of challenging stereotypes and embracing diverse perspectives,” says Bowman, whose short Starcrossed Destinies screened as part of MoM’s “Unique Romances” program last night. “I believe the entertainment industry has the opportunity to recognize and celebrate the unique voices and talents of individuals like myself that have for so long been underutilized and overlooked.”

Launched three years ago at MoMI as part of a year-round initiative at the museum, the 2024 Marvels of Media festival includes 17 films and one virtual reality project, crafted by neurodivergent directors, writers, editors, cinematographers and animators. “Marvels is just one festival of hundreds of film festivals all over the world, but it is also entirely unique and entirely in line with the Museum of the Moving Image’s position as a hands-on, creative space,” says MoMI executive director Aziz Isham. “The festival is a celebration. It’s a moment for neurodiverse makers and their friends, families and allies to gather together, find strength, share ideas, forge collaborative partnerships and build community. It’s what our museum is all about.”

The MoM filmmakers are a diverse collective of emerging and established artists who also identify as queer or people of color and whose work deftly explores issues both specific and not to the neurodivergent community. “[Stories by members of the community] bring new worlds, new patterns and new manners of expression,” says Sapan, who has an adult neurodiverse child and credits the quality and diversity of the MoM to its neurodiverse team and steering committee. The festival is co-curated by the museum’s assistant curator of public programs Tiffany Joy Butler and its media and access educator Miranda Lee, who is herself autistic. They help shape not only the screenings but also post-screening panels and workshops on collage animation, puppetry and audiovisual storytelling techniques for early career filmmakers and artists on the spectrum to develop and expand their skills. “We have connected emerging autistic filmmaker Jackson Tucker-Meyer with animator Jorge R. Gutiérrez and actor, director and producer Sue Ann Pien through a virtual Marvels of Media directors roundtable,” says Lee, adding that the festival will continue “to serve as a place for networking opportunities connecting both neurodivergent and neurotypical artists.”

That kind of networking is also a major element of ReelAbilities’ Industry Summit, which Zablocki says has led to a community being built and expanded in real-time. “Every year we’re making sure that we have an hour where you let those relationships grow.”

Investing in and supporting the growth and success of autistic mediamakers is part of why Spiridakis joined Marvels of Media’s inaugural advisory board alongside Goldwyn, Jim Henson Foundation president Cheryl Henson, producer Brian Grazer, former MTV Networks chairman and CEO Judy McGrath, As We See It actor Pien and Great American Media CEO William J. Abbott, among others. “I was able to recruit a lot of them by just asking people who I thought would be, for any number of reasons, predisposed to say yes,” Sapan explains. “There’s a wide range of reasons they did, including that they have a family member who is neurodivergent, or they’re people who just have a worldview that’s wide. Two or three have a creative sensibility, in terms of the work that they do, that would appreciate a creator who comes from a different place and space, and who brings to the making of media something that may be different and elevated.”

It’s the kind of industry backing that affirms the mission of these festivals. Films like Ezra, says Zablocki, not only “come from a very sincere and most importantly authentic place” but also signal a larger sea change within the mainstream U.S. market and festival space. Titles like ReelAbilities’ closing night film, the Steve Way executive produced Good Bad Things, selections Rally Caps, starring Judd Hirsch and Amy Smart, and Slamdance award winner Daruma all similarly come from that place.

“We are seeing more and more American-made narrative features, which was not the case throughout the early years of our festival,” says Zablocki of ReelAbilities, whose hybrid event this year will include more than 25 features and shorts and a two-day industry summit. “We used to rely on narrative features out of Europe because there was government funding there. Now we are entering a new era where there’s high-quality, American disability — still mostly independent — cinema.”

That follows years of success in the shorts space, which Zablocki says are frequently “the most daring of the films, every year.” At MoM, that includes the “Unique Romances” program, exploring queer and autistic relationships, and the Ayo Edebiri and Seth Rogen-voiced Tree’s Blood, from Exceptional Minds and Reel Start. ReelAbilities, a BAFTA-qualifying festival in the shorts category, counts the Troy Kotsur-focused doc To My Father, the Jillian Mercado-led My Eyes Are Up Here and Dear Ani — about one man’s 20-year journey corresponding with musician Ani DeFranco — among its 2024 slate.

For Sapan, getting to present these kind of groundbreaking stories created by autistic artists to audiences on the spectrum was a major inspiration for founding the MoMI event, after watching the “emancipation and connection” his son found through storytelling: “These are beautiful demonstrations of how you see the world differently if your lens is different, and that’s what I think is so wonderful about what Marvels of Media attempts to do.”

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