Want to see characters with disabilities played by actors with disabilities: US filmmaker James Lebrecht
- Lebrecht co-directed award-winning documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (USA)” along with Nicole Newnham
- The film is executive produced by Barack Obama and Michelle Obama through their production company, Higher Ground
- The filmmaker is going to be one of the key speakers at the National Ability Summit spearheaded by Varija Life.
“It’s easier to get inside someone’s heart and mind through the arts versus telling them what they should do,” California based filmmaker James Lebrecht told Opoyi in an interview while sharing the importance of films and TV in changing the world overall. His award-winning documentary “Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution (USA)” that he has co-directed with Nicole Newnham is one such example.
The impactful Netflix documentary, executive produced by Barack and Michelle Obama through their production company Higher Ground, starts in a camp in upstate New York for those with disabilities and ends with a much bigger civil rights movement that led to vital systemic change for them.
“Films and Television – all art forms can wield great power. It’s easier to get inside someone’s heart and mind through the arts versus telling them what they 'should' do. Let people see it, feel it. I had a friend say to me that the one good thing about TV was that if we do become characters on a show, people can stare at us from the privacy of their own homes. Perhaps that will help them get it out of their system and not subject us to being reduced to a curiosity,” he said.
He further said, “Films, especially when we can gather in theatres again, are communal experiences. They are bigger than life. When the story feels authentic and compelling – and comedies can do this as well are dramas – it can transform one's perspective and alter stereotypes. I’ve mixed close to 200 films, and I can tell you that there have been many documentaries that I’ve worked on that have shifted my perception on communities that I am not a part of. So to answer the question, a film can have enormous power – if the film is compelling.”
The filmmaker says that making this film was “emotionally, a whirlwind.”
“I’m very happy that our film has been seen all over the world and that it’s creating conversations and community. At times, it brings tears because the journey for acceptance and respect that our community has been on (and continues to fight for) has been so hard. I sense a breakthrough happening due, in some small part, to our film,” he said.
Lebrecht is going to be one of key speakers at the first-ever edition of National Ability Summit to be hosted virtually by Varija Life, a Not for Profit Organisation under the fashion and lifestyle brand Varija Bajaj.
The event will take place for two days starting on December 2 and will see acclaimed names from media, films, fashion, and lifestyle, speaking on the need to create awareness on disability and creating an environment for them where they feel welcomed.
Lebrecht says that he is someone who doesn’t use terms like “differently-abled” or the like and prefers simply to say disabled
“I respect the fact that semantics vary from country to country and community to community, so this isn’t judgmental on my part. I take my cue from disability leaders here in the US, including Lawrence Carter-Long. He’s written that he feels that other terms other than disabled are euphemisms and are trying to not use the word “disabled” He’s written a hashtag #saytheword,” he said.
When asked if it is important to reassess the story narratives of persons with disabilities in the script, he said, “Absolutely!”
“I believe that the negative stereotypes found in the media that we, as people with disabilities have to endure, are directly responsible for the horrid perception that some have about us. And this kind of treatment perpetuates the state we live in. You don’t hire someone if you think that they are pitiful. Therefore, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is incredibly high. If you are only told one story, one is bound to believe it as truth. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
“When people with disabilities are hired in the industry, as scriptwriters, as producers and directors, as performers – in all aspects of this work, then positive, authentic stories will be told. But as I advocate here in the US, industry leaders throughout the world need to provide the opportunities for those from my community to learn, to hone their craft and to build a fan base for actors. I want to see characters with disabilities played by actors with disabilities. I don’t think that in this day and age we would stand for this kind of unauthentic casting for any other group of people. Why should this be acceptable for the disabled?”
And probably this is the reason why he says that “It’s time for the entertainment industry to get out of it’s unimaginative “safe space” of repeating the old tropes and create masterpieces built on truth. Who has the courage to do that?”
He says that disability is a natural part of life. It happens to all of us if we live long enough so one should “stop thinking of people with disabilities as being deficient. (Rather) think of us as we are: Unique, A rarity, As absolutely beautiful and perfect just as we are.”
He says that “Normal’ is a myth and disabled or not, tears are shed every day when we feel the pressure to conform or to look like a movie star.”
“My life is joyous, funny, hard, meaningful, complex, at times maddening, sexy and erotic. I am helpful to others, I am a husband, I have run a company. I have accomplished much and still have years ahead to do more. Would you know that just by looking at me, sitting in my wheelchair, with my long hair a bit messy, my torso about 25 pounds overweight, and with my legs sticking out all akimbo? No! So why would you do that to anyone else?
Get over your fear of the unknown and buy me a cold drink. Let’s talk about life and art and love. And when I say “me”, I mean us,” he said.