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Courtesy of / Ashley Eakin

The “Nothing About Us Without Us” series tells the stories of marginalized individuals, shedding light on the importance of promoting diversity both on and behind the camera.

In recent years, there has been conversation and controversy about which voices are being prioritized in front of and behind the camera in Hollywood. The film series “Nothing About Us Without Us” looks to celebrate and dissect representation as it appears in everyday life. Each of the seven shorts allows the audience to view the world from underrepresented individuals’ perspectives and to understand what it means to be viewed differently by those around them.

For Ashley Eakin, her experiences as an individual who is disabled fueled the creation of her film “Single,” in which she sought to fight against and come to terms with her feelings of internalized ableism in a society that promotes health and athleticism above all else.

“I will say I’m disabled for the rest of my life and it doesn’t hurt me anymore because I’m realizing [that] the reason it hurt me [before] is because of the lack of portrayals of disabled people [which made me feel] like I didn’t fit into this box that society [has created for disabled individuals]” Eakin said.

“Ava & Bianca,” directed by Rachel Fleit

To begin the series, the documentary short “Ava & Bianca” shares the story of Ava Benjamin Schorr and Bianca Cline, two transgender female cinematographers.

The film focuses on the pair’s friendship and shared experiences, from their Mormon upbringing to transitioning and entering the film industry. Over the course of the short, they reflect on the strain that their transition had and continues to have on their relationships with friends and family.

“Finding those people in your life who just really connect [with] you is rare and is to be celebrated,” Fleit said.

“Ava & Bianca” also explores the women’s experiences navigating the historically cisgender, male-dominated film industry. Despite the challenges they faced in being misrepresented, misunderstood, and marginalized, Schorr and Cline have not let these experiences stop them from pursuing their passion.

“I love cinematography because you can take away any of the other elements and it would still be cinema,” Cline said. “But you can’t take away [the] camera and the image. I get to make you feel a certain way without using words. That’s what cinema is.”

Interestingly, many of each woman’s scenes in the documentary were shot by the other. In having such a strong bond, Schorr and Cline reveal their unique capability to directly relate to one another, which shines through in the film.

“What are you projecting onto your subject?” Schorr said. “Are you compassionate? Are you empathetic? Are you there with them, or are you just projecting your own thing onto this person?”

At its heart, “Ava & Bianca” is a story about trials and tribulations, the joy that comes from being true to oneself, and the confidence in expressing that for the world to see.

“Single,” directed by Ashley Eakin

As Kim pays for her groceries, the store clerk looks up and notices her missing arm. She smiles and asks, “Do you need help out to your car?”

Exasperated, Kim responds, “No, I think I can carry my one bag. Thank you, though.”

“God bless, sweetie,” the clerk replies.

Staring her straight in the eyes, Kim says, “You are so rude” before knocking the items on the counter onto the ground. Strutting out of the supermarket, Kim is headstrong and unwilling to accept pity for her condition.

“Single” tells the story of a blind date that eventually ends in friendship. Upon realizing that her date, Jake, also has a missing limb, Kim angrily leaves midway through the date to egg the house of the woman who set them up. But Jake goes after her, and they retire to the rooftop of his apartment to cathartically throw eggs at a broken window.

Though Kim and Jake both find that they are treated differently because they have missing limbs, they respond to their experiences in fundamentally different ways. While Kim does not identify as disabled and sees the label as something that makes her inferior to others, Jake remembers the pain he felt when he was told to hide his missing hand in family photos.

By the end of the film, it seems as if they might have fallen in love with one another, but “Single” subverts the expectation that they will end up together. Instead, the film portrays the relationships of disabled individuals as being just as messy and multifaceted as any relationship between able-bodied people—deconstructing the disabled experience as able-bodied people conceive of it.

“La Indefinible,” directed by Agustina Biasutto

Thirty-three distinct countries. Over 658,000,000 inhabitants. Yet there is only one perception of the community. “La Indefinible” works to circumvent a generalized understanding of Latin American society by highlighting the diversity of cultures, personalities, appearances, and customs that make up who Latin American people are today.

“La Indefinable” focuses on the upbringings and experiences of Latina women. The film intersperses images of the women posing, dancing, and spending time with their families with overlapping English and Spanish dialogue as they recount the cultural expectations that they wish to defy.

In an early scene, the women gather in the center of an empty swimming pool to reflect on the stereotypes they are expected to embody. Defining these stereotypes, they state, “The Latina is the mom. The Latina is the whore. She’s always dancing and acting crazy. She’s giving me attitude; I like that. We keep the house clean. Oh, we make good wives. Oh, she’s so loud.”

Rather than simply stating these stereotypes, “La Indefinible” tears them down. It does so not by overtly stating that these stereotypes are wrong, but by disproving their validity through highlighting the numerous ways Latina women have come to define themselves. By simply merging the images and voice-overs of various Latinas, “La Indefinible” visually connects to its audience, allowing them to recognize that Latina women are more than what they initially might suspect them to be.

As one woman states in the film, “Also the discomfort of seeing a Latin woman completely free. It scares. Because that woman is frightening. Because she is capable of anything. She can do whatever she wants.”

“Material Bodies,” directed by Dorothy Allen-Pickard

In four minutes, “Material Bodies” captures the relationship between amputees and their limbs through rhythmic dance routines overlaid with dialogue from amputees on their perception of the world.

To the able-bodied, a prosthetic is a foreign object, replacing what once existed, but “Material Bodies” shows how prosthetics serve as an extension of the wearer’s identity. As Caitlin McMullan reflects at the beginning of the film, “Sometimes I think people perceive this [as] something very hard or strong, and for me, it’s very simple. It’s just my leg.”

The film also focuses on the desexualization of disabled bodies and the unyielding gaze these individuals endure. No matter where they go or what they do, what they are missing comes to define them in society, even if they do not believe they are not “whole” without these body parts.

“There is a lot of pressure put on us to fit into specific categories and a lot of that is being an inspiration,” Kat Hawkins, a bilateral amputee with prosthetic legs, says in the film.

Overall, “Material Bodies” captures the multiple ways in which individuals view their prosthetics.

“[For] some people, it’s like a kind of dance companion; for others, it’s like an irritating friend. …  In some ways, it’s purely functional, but then in other ways, it can be considered in terms of design,” Allen-Pickard says.

“Borderless (Bedone Marz),” directed by Behrad Sahebgharani

The crushing desperation of loneliness is a universal feeling. For most, the feeling is fleeting. For some, however, it can become all-consuming.

“Borderless” tells the story of Delaram, a teenage girl living with Down syndrome who desperately wishes to be a part of the wider community despite its ridicule and scorn.

After being rejected from a children’s soccer game, she reflects, “This is what bothers me: the distance between me and them that I want to be removed.”

To compensate, Delaram creates an imaginary friend, Morvarid, who acts as the only child who does not view her differently. She also turns to music for comfort, which allows her to “whisper whatever is in [her] heart” and “drown in peace.”

“Borderless” also focuses on the impact Delaram’s Down syndrome has on her family. In doing so, the film focuses on the important work done by parents of children who are disabled. Throughout the film, Delaram’s mother tirelessly works to protect her daughter and help her make friends in an attempt to bridge the gap between “normal” and “abnormal.” In one of the most heartbreaking scenes, Delaram’s mother is told that all the children in her daughter’s music class are “normal,” to which she responds, “She is normal, too!”

Delaram concludes the film by saying, “In my loneliness, I live with my dreams, until someday I could find my true friend.” At its core, “Borderless” reveals the arbitrary divides created between those that society deems “normal” and those that it continues to marginalize.

“êmîcêtôcêt (Many Bloodlines),” directed by Theola Ross

“êmîcêtôcêt” follows the story of two women—one white, one Native American—through the fertility process, as they aim to have a child together. Intertwined is an exploration of their racial, cultural, and class differences as they voice the hopes and dreams they share for their future.

Crucial to the couple’s journey is the search for a sperm donor that is “solidly Indigenous.” Ross, who is from the Cree tribe, is more European by blood than Native American, and wants to reclaim his Native American heritage by having an Indigenous child.

The film also explores the women’s relationships with their families and how these experiences shape their roles as future parents. Both have their own preferences, desires, and hopes for their and their child’s future. At the same time, “êmîcêtôcêt” showcases the love they have for each other despite the vast cultural differences between them. The film highlights Ross’ wife’s unconditional acceptance of Cree traditions, with Ross stating that “our differences really brought us together.”

When the baby is born, the film ends with a tender scene where Ross speaks to her child in the Cree language. “Oh, our baby. You are Indigenous. And your name will be Kîwêtin Wilder Anôskan Mahina. You’re from Pimicikamak. I thank the Creator. I truly love you. Our baby.”

“Chick Flicks,” directed by Tatiana Jorio

Even after the rise of the #MeToo Movement and allegations against long-standing film icons like Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood film industry remains dominated by white men, both in front of and behind the camera. The documentary short, “Chick Flicks,” argues that the lack of diversity in the film industry starts not at production, but at film school.

“Chick Flicks” explores the experiences of female film students as they navigate a system that continually perpetuates racial and sexual discrimination. In a parallel storyline, the film follows female film experts and the struggles they face in trying to stay relevant.

In exploring the discourse surrounding film schools, the short emphasizes the subordinate roles women play in the classroom and in productions as directly related to the lack of representation in the Hollywood film scene. As female students in the film mention, their classes and the main roles given would often be centered around their white, male peers at the expense of others. This manifested itself in the female student filmmakers feeling more anxious on set, receiving harsher comments, and being shamed by teachers and fellow classmates for their work.

“People, men especially, tend to hire other people who remind them of themselves,” Katie Chambers, director of community engagement at New York Women in Film & Television, says. “When you don’t have people in positions of power who are people of color, who are women, who are gay, [or] transgender, it’s less likely that those people are going to get hired.”

“Chick Flicks” also remarks on the lack of discussion on industry representation in film schools, with professors and students shying away from crucial conversations on issues of sexual assault and discrimination in the film industry. In sidestepping these conversations, “Chick Flicks” highlights how film schools actively downplay the marginalization experienced by female filmmakers, filmmakers of color, and filmmakers of the LGBTQ community inside and outside the classroom.

Playing into the “Nothing About Us Without Us” short program’s larger theme, “Chick Flicks” is a rallying cry to address problems of discrimination in the film industry in an effort to ensure that the demographics seen on screen also begin to match those of the individuals behind the camera.

Noah Sheidlower contributed reporting.

Staff Writer Irene Madrigal can be contacted at Follow Spectator on Twitter @ColumbiaSpec.

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Irene Madrigal Athena Film Festival Nothing About Us Without Us Ava & Bianca Single La Indefinible Material Bodies Borderless êmîcêtôcêt Chick Flicks
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