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Sundance Film Festival 2022 Shines the Spotlight on Disability Authenticity

With one-in-five people having a disability in the U.S. today, the lack of representation – just 2.3 percent of characters in the 100 top-grossing films of 2019 and 8 percent in family films – means that millions of people are unable to see themselves reflected in media.

The 2022 Sundance Film Festival (January 20 – 30) will provide an opportunity for audiences with various disabilities to see themselves represented – all from the comfort of their homes through the virtual festival site. This year, several films feature disability in the plot, including “892,” “75,000,” “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” “Chilly and Milly,” “I Didn’t See You There,” and “Sharp Stick,” among others.

Ensuring an Accessible Festival

The 2022 Sundance Film Festival being virtual this year also brings a desire to be accessible to all. According to Sundance, all films will be available with closed captioning on every English language feature film and short or subtitles on non-English films, which allows viewers who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing to view films. In addition, the New Frontier Spaceship includes closed captioning and text chat features. All premiere screening Q&A’s, along with most of the Beyond Film program of panels and events, will include ASL interpretation. In addition, 11 feature-length films and two shorts include audio description (AD) for blind and low-vision viewers.

Most importantly, the programmers have said they will conduct ongoing accessibility audits of all Sundance-hosted online venues and events throughout the festival. In addition, the festival has provided a way for anyone to request an accommodation or offer feedback. To offer feedback, please contact the accessibility team at accessibility@sundance.org or the accessibility hotline, 435-776-7790.

Below please find a guide to several of the films featuring disability in the plot or talent with disabilities.

Feature (U.S. Dramatic Competition): “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (Director and Screenwriter: Cooper Raiff) – Premieres January 23, 1:45 p.m. PT

From writer-director and actor Cooper Raiff comes the story of a New Jersey party starter, Andrew, working the Bar Mitzvah circuit after college who meets his match in a suburban mother Domino (Dakota Johnson), then begins sitting for her autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), bringing him closer to their family. Newcomer Vanessa Burghardt, who is autistic herself, plays Lola. RespectAbility team members provided consulting services on Burghardt’s role in this film.

Feature (U.S. Documentary Competition): “I Didn’t See You There” (Director: Reid Davenport) – Premieres January 24, 10:45 a.m. PT

Spurred by the spectacle of a circus tent that goes up outside his Oakland apartment, a disabled filmmaker launches into an unflinching meditation on freakdom, (in)visibility, and the pursuit of individual agency.

Feature (Premieres): “Sharp Stick” (Director and Screenwriter: Lena Dunham) – Premieres January 22, 5:30 p.m. PT

Sensitive and naive 26-year-old Sarah Jo lives in a Los Angeles apartment complex with her influencer sister and her disillusioned mother. She is also a wonderful caregiver to Zach, a child with an intellectual disability. Eager to lose her virginity, Sarah Jo embarks on an exhilarating affair with Zach’s father, Josh. In the wake of the doomed relationship, Sarah Jo grapples with heartbreak by dedicating herself to unlocking every aspect of the sexual experience that she feels she’s missed out on for so long.

Feature (U.S. Dramatic Competition): “892” (Director and Screenwriter: Abi Damaris Corbin) – Premieres January 21, 10:30 a.m. PT

When Brian Brown-Easley’s disability check fails to materialize from Veterans Affairs, he finds himself on the brink of homelessness and breaking his daughter’s heart. With no other options, he walks into a Wells Fargo Bank and says, “I’ve got a bomb.” As police, media, and family members descend on the bank and Brian, it becomes clear he’s not after money — he wants to tell his story and have what is rightfully his, even if it costs him his life.

Feature (U.S. Dramatic Competition): “Dual” (Director and Screenwriter: Riley Stearns) – Premieres January 22, 5:00 p.m. PT

After receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah commissions a clone of herself to ease the loss for her friends and family. When she makes a miraculous recovery, her attempt to have her clone decommissioned fails, and leads to a court-mandated duel to the death.

Feature (Premieres): “Living” (Director: Oliver Hermanus) – Premieres January 21, 11:00 am PT

In 1952 London, veteran civil servant Williams has become a small cog in the bureaucracy of rebuilding England post-WWII. As endless paperwork piles up on his desk, he learns he has a fatal illness. Thus begins his quest to find some meaning in his life before it slips away.

Documentary Short: “75,000” (Director and Screenwriter: Moïse Togo) – Available On-Demand with a pass throughout the entire festival

Highlighting the biological aspect of albinism, 75,000 focuses on the genetic and hereditary abnormality that affects not only pigmentation but the physical and moral conditions of people living with albinism.

Documentary Short: “Chilly and Milly” (Director: William David Caballero) – Available On-Demand with a pass throughout the entire festival

Exploring the director’s father’s chronic health problems, as a diabetic with kidney failure, and his mother’s role as his eternal caretaker, Chilly and Milly is a combination of 3D-modeled/composited characters, with cinéma vérité scenes from an autobiographical documentary shot over 13 years ago.

Midnight Short: “Appendage” (Director and Screenwriter: Anna Zlokovic) – Available On-Demand with a pass throughout the entire festival

A young fashion designer must make the best of it when her anxiety and self-doubt physically manifest into something horrific.

Talent With Disabilities

When successful actors and producers disclose a nonvisible disability, such as a learning disability or mental health condition, they help normalize these disabilities in both the entertainment world and for the general public who consume their films and television shows. In some cases, actors with disabilities appear in films that do not necessarily have disability in the plot. In several of these instances, actors with disabilities are playing roles that have nothing to do with their disability.

Additional research provided by Eric Ascher.

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