OPINION: Film-makers can change world for disabled people – but they must change too

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OPINION: Film-makers can change world for disabled people – but they must change too

Movie-goers are crying out to see depictions of the real world in cinemas - but the industry is lagging behind, including in Israel

Ahmir Lerner
Ahmir Lerner

In 2021, the film CODA won three Academy Awards, including one for Best Picture. The main characters are a young hearing woman and her two deaf parents. CODA is a great example of the right way to portray people with disabilities in film, with authentic casting of both parents and other characters played by deaf actors and a storyline that reflects participation and inclusion. Unfortunately CODA is still an outlier.

Films do not only depict reality; they impact and change it. Films that show the public sphere as it is and as we aspire it to be are an important way for the public to learn to accept others as part of society. This is true for ethnic minorities and people of colour, as well as people with disabilities.

Representation of people with disabilities in the cinema is especially dire. In a recent study conducted by the University of Southern California on the 100 most successful films of 2019, only 2.3% of characters had disabilities, in comparison to 20% of the general population. In 48 movies there was no disability representation at all. Unfortunately, there’s been no significant change in these statistics in the past five years.

With regard to the Israeli film industry, we have no hard data. For many years, we saw the portrayal of people with disabilities in mainstream Israeli films such as I Don’t Give a Damn (1987/Shmuel Imberman), about how a young soldier wounded in battle deals with losing the use of his legs and the way in which society relates to him. A more recent film, Laces (2018/Yankele Goldwasser), depicts the complicated relationship between an aging father and his adult son who has an intellectual disability. These rare examples notwithstanding, equal and fair representation and participation of people with disabilities does not exist in Israeli cinema.

This week the Israeli Film Festival opens in the UK. Beit Issie Shapiro decided to support the festival in order to highlight cinema as a powerful tool for social change. People with disabilities are an equal part of society and any one of us can find themselves part of this minority in an instant. People with disabilities are the largest minority and they cross all sectors of society. They are rich and poor, urban and rural, young and old, gay and straight, Muslim and Jew. As an organisation advocating for social change, we would like to see the Israeli film industry take an active role in the process, by showing society as fully participatory, exactly as we would like to see it in real life.

Our goal is not only that people with disabilities are portrayed in proportion to their numbers in society. The way they are portrayed is equally if not more important. We would like to see a wide range of people with disabilities as they really are: strong people, professionals, leaders, parents. People who face difficulties and dilemmas and cope, like all of us. Because people with disabilities are like all of us.

Besides representation, inclusion of people with disabilities in the industry is just as crucial. We expect to see more actors, directors, writers, critics and production crew with disabilities. Israeli society is already waiting. In a recent survey conducted by IPanel and funded by the Ruderman Family Foundation, 70% of those surveyed said they see representation of people with disabilities as important. 91% stated that they would be less likely to go to a film that misrepresents people with disabilities. It is time that the film industry becomes a leader, not a follower – and there’s no time like the present to start.

Ahmir Lerner is the chief executive of Beit Issie Shapiro. He was for 22 years in the Prime Minister’s Office in Israel, where his last two positions were deputy director of logistics and security, and director of the leadership school.

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