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Disability Representation in Film: Catching up with Filmmakers Rachel Handler and Catriona Rubenis-Stevens

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The 2021 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, currently streaming online, is seeking to expand what audiences know – or perhaps think they know – about the representation of disabilities in the film industry. I was lucky enough to catch up with two talented women whose short film, So You Wanna Be An Actor, is currently featured.

So You Wanna Be An Actor was written by New York based Writer/Director/Actor Rachel Handler, herself an amputee working in the film industry. She and fellow filmmaker Catriona Rubenis-Stevens have teamed up for the Challenge three times already, and this year, they have created the short mockumentary in which Rachel plays an acting coach trying to prepare a young, aspiring actress for the few roles she can expect to find as an amputee. 

“It’s all about spreading awareness,” Rachel told me. “It’s trying to shine that light on the fact that actors with disabilities are not cast in roles in the same ways a nondisabled actor is cast. Too often they’re just perceived as victims. They can play the hospital patient, but not the doctor.”

Actress and Filmmaker Rachel Handler

Before her move to New York, Rachel went to school to study musical theater.

“In 2012, I lost my leg in a car accident. Then at the first audition I went to as a disabled woman, they laughed me out of the room. So I started writing my own stuff. In 2013 I was cast in a horror movie, which got me into film work. I thought the film and TV industry would be more accepting of me.”

The discovery of the Easterseals Challenge introduced her to a love of writing and producing in 2014. She won the Best Actor prize that year, and went on to win Best Comedian at the Hollywood Hills Awards in 2017 and the AT&T Underrepresented Filmmaker Award in 2018.  Since then, her projects with Catriona have won Best Awareness Campaign in 2019 and 2020. Their films have also screened at Hollyshorts, Reel Abilities, Slamdance, and New Filmmakers LA, among others.

“Our work gets better and better every year,” said Rachel. 

Behind The Scenes with Catriona Rubenis-Stevens

The two met at Westfield International Film Fest in 2018, where each of them had a film screen at the festival, and learned they both lived in Jersey City. When the Easterseals Challenge came around a few months later, the opportunity for collaboration was obvious. Catriona also has a background directing in film, theater, and music videos for the BBC, Ruby Studios, and the History Channel and artists such as Lux and Giselle. Her shorts have screened at over twenty film festivals worldwide. 

Catriona is also passionate about disability representation in the industry, and has noted that a temporary disability of her own has been particularly eye opening as she recovers from knee surgery.  Her damaged knee has been a consistent source of pain, and to make matters worse, she struggled for years to get doctors to take her seriously. 

Actress Michaella Metz

“As a viewer without a disability, I don’t know why I don’t see disabled actors just playing every day people on TV. I have to keep making these films in the Challenge because I have to help get the word out,” she added.

She also cited the recent Netflix film, I Care a Lot, in which actor Peter Dinklage plays the antagonist to Rosamund Pike’s lead character.

“It’s not about him. There’s nothing about his disability in the film. He’s just playing a badass character.”

            Rachel also cites the show Speechless, which ran on ABC for three seasons, and Special on Netflix as examples of representation that have been handled particularly well.

“I’m hopeful that narratives will continue to shift in the right direction,” she said. “If you’re going to have a disabled veteran, make them more complex and authentic. I’m all for a hospital patient with a back-story, but if she’s just sad because she lost her leg, I’ve been there and done that.”

            Still, So You Wanna Be An Actor, along with many others in the Easterseals Challenge, pushes the audience to want more from the media they consume.

“There’s this trend of specific categories and stereotypes for characters with disabilities. A lot of the time the roles were cast with a non-disabled actor, and when the role was cast with a disabled actor, 9/10 they fit into these categories: a prop as a dead body, a patient, or an angry veteran,” Rachel explained.

            Their work is certainly keeping both filmmakers busy, even among the challenges of limited roles, knee surgery, and of course, a global pandemic. Catriona recently worked as the First Assistant Director on the Academy-Award nominated short Feeling Through, featuring deaf and blind lead actor Robert Tarango; Rachel is currently pitching a Holiday script with four disabled lead characters; and both are seeking funding for their 2020 award-winner from EastersealsHow Much Am I Worth?a short documentary about health care and insurance for the disabled, which they plan to develop as a feature.

            “My huge goal is to be writing and staring in my own single camera comedy. I’ll keep acting for sure. I would love to play a nurse or a doctor with a disability who was inspired to become a medical professional because of whatever caused them to become disabled. I feel like that’s an obvious story and I haven’t seen it yet,” said Rachel. 

            This year’s group at Easterseals includes 93 shorts, which collectively have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times online. So You Wanna Be An Actor was released to the public on March 27 and had 2,000 views in the first two days. In other words, people are watching, and Rachel and Catriona aren’t buying Hollywood’s usual excuses. Catriona put it best:

“There are no disabled actors that can be the lead in a film? Come on!”

            “People want this material,” Rachel added. “If it’s fun and original, of course they want it. And if it’s about disabled people, of course it’s original!”

 So You Wanna Be An Actor is available now. 

https://disabilityfilmchallenge.com/

Jessica Hobbs spent the early part of her career working in technical theater, opera, and film festivals while earning her film degree at the University of Colorado. She spent a year touring with a Vaudeville show, which included a 3-week run at the New Victory Theater in New York. After five years working in Reality TV as a Writer’s Assistant and Associate Producer, she made the move to Los Angeles and took a job with the Sundance Institute while also working as a freelance writer, producer and script supervisor for film and TV. She is currently the Manager for the Sundance Co//ab Online Community and is a frequent contributor with online publications such as Ms. In The Biz, We Do It Together, The Drill, Women in Horror, and The Wrap.

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