Denver is adding to its growing list of cultural attractions, and this time, the spotlight is on inclusivity.

ReelAbilities—the international film festival highlighting the multifaceted lives of people with disabilities—is headed to the Mile High City for the first time May 5 through 8. The event, which will be hosted by the JCC Mizel Arts and Culture Center, will kick off with an on-demand virtual structure.

“It was actually super exciting to have the opportunity to launch this as a virtual festival because we found that in doing so, we’re able to more accessibly reach people than we might have been able to in person,” Amy Weiner Weiss, director of festivals at the Mizel Arts and Culture Center, says, noting that the they were able to outfit the entire virtual festival experience with open captions, audio descriptions, and American Sign Language interpretation. Denver’s role as a host city has been in the works since 2019, according to Weiner Weiss, who says she was surprised to see a festival she considers “one of the best kept secrets in the cultural arts” missing from a hub like Denver.

The lineup will feature six films from the ReelAbilities international catalog, as well as three supplementary panels and workshops centered around this year’s theme: art and performance. Weiner Weiss hopes the framework will remind audiences of the power of empathy and to see people holistically.

“These incredible artists are so much more than the one frame of the disability lens of the communities that they represent. That’s just one element,” Weiner Weiss says. “We’re able to reflect the really authentic stories of people on screen with myriad disabilities in a way where they’re at the center of these narratives. They’re not side characters. They’re not inspiration for protagonists to enact a protagonist change. They are protagonists in their own right.”

Viewers can stream any film or program any time during the four-day festival, like 2018 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary (Short Subject), Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, which follows visual artist Mindy Alper and her journey expressing her battles with mental illness through her artwork, and Jmaxx and the Universal Language, the story of a Chicago teenager with autism, who uses hip-hop dance as a way to communicate with the world around him. Denver will even have its own moment in the limelight with the film There’s Still Hope for Dreams: A PHAMALY Story, a documentary on the Mile High City’s very own Phamaly Theatre Company—a critically acclaimed troupe of actors all living with various forms of disability.

Weiner Weiss emphasizes that with the festival’s move to Denver, she was hoping to bring the focus to local organizations who are already working to promote accessibility and inclusion in the community—something that’s reflected in the virtual events available to festival-goers, including an adaptive dance and movement class hosted by Colorado Conservatory of Dance and Art as Action, and a creative mindfulness workshop from Colorado Art Therapy Association board member Arielle Rothenberg.

Mark Dissette, director of the film There’s Still Hope For Dreams and long-time actor and director with the Phamaly Theatre Company, says the emphasis on these local groups was part of the reason why he happily handed over copies of his documentary to stream for the new Denver festival.

“I wanted [the film] to get out to a broader audience.” Dissette says. “I always looked at it like, Why aren’t there more institutions like Phamaly, in the major cities?

Dissette’s film—which originally debuted in 2010—pulls back the curtain on what it’s actually like to captivate an audience while overcoming challenges like choreographing a tango number in a wheelchair. “We’re striving to be creative, and put on the best frickin’ show we possibly can,” Dissette says. “And we do that. We’re also striving to show people that we can push the limits of what they think people with disabilities can do, artistically and physically.”

And despite the uplifting name of his own film, Dissette jokes that viewers shouldn’t come into this festival and simply expect “inspiration porn.” That kind of tokenization—or even infantilization—of these artists is bound to be addressed in the festival’s panel on representation, hosted by the Phamaly Theatre Company, along with the filmmakers of Code of the Freaksone of the festival’s featured movies.

“In the long run, people with disabilities, we need more representation,” Dissette says, lamenting times in the industry when he’s seen non-disabled actors portraying characters with disabilities—or conversely, disabled creatives being denied any opportunity that’s perceived to only be fitting for non-disabled creatives. “I think if we could just convince the artistic community—if I could just get them to believe this—that if you [hire disabled creatives], your product will be better. You’ll be happier with it. You will have more invested in it, and invested in you, and it’ll be better than you can ever do with somebody else.”

These conversations and their corresponding films will be available to stream anywhere in Colorado, as well as nationwide, in case any Coloradans can’t view from home this week. And while Weiner Weiss is still unsure of tentative in-person plans for next year’s ReelAbilities: Denver Film Festival, the Mizel Arts and Culture Center still plans for this to be the first of many annual iterations, with an accessible virtual option as a permanent feature.

“We’re really just hoping this is a starting point—that we can really continue to grow from here,” she says.

If you go: Streaming available from May 5–8; Tickets are pay-what-you-can, with a recommended ticket price of $6 for short films, and $12 for feature-length films and supplemental programs. Find more information online.

Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill
Madi Skahill is 5280’s former associate digital editor.