Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Australia's film and TV industry opening up to disabled performers

From The Age in Australia:

When Mel Gibson played Tim in the 1979 Australian film of the same name, it set no benchmarks for the portrayal of people with disabilities.

"Absolutely cringeworthy," says Bruce Gladwin, artistic director of the pioneering Geelong-based contemporary theatre company Back to Back.

"He was supposed to have some unspecified intellectual disability but if you can name it you're doing very well. I've got no idea what it was supposed to be."

Now though, not only are disabled roles being played better than ever but disabled stage and screen performers are having their talents recognised in the mainstream.

If Mel Gibson was a low point, Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988) and Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (1989) raised the bar considerably.

Australian films have now gone a step further, featuring actors with a disability, such as Back to Back's Simon Laherty, who appears in Noise.

Stella Young (pictured), who co-presents Channel 31's No Limits, says it's not necessarily the TV and film industries opening up to performers with disabilities, but the performers themselves who are working harder to get their big break.

"Five years ago you wouldn't have seen Simon in a film like Noise but companies like Back to Back produce work so amazing there's no way the industry can say no," she says.

Scott Price has recently graduated to the TV screen with a role in the Seven Network's forthcoming City Homicide. The producers wanted to cast a young man with Down syndrome, and while Price doesn't have Down's, they were attracted to his sensitivity and fragility.

But more than that, says Gladwin, they were attracted to his professionalism and craft and skill as an actor.

Actors with a disability playing characters with a disability have been particularly prominent in Australian films this year, including Matthew Saville's feature Noise and Clubland, which stars Brenda Blethyn.

Saville says he had no hesitation casting Laherty as "Lucky Phil" in Noise.

"There was never any question about whether I'd use an actor with a disability for the role because I've always been aware of the work of Back to Back. Simon was very easy to work with because from the moment he walked in, he understood the character better than I did."

Rick Randall, director of The Other Film Festival, Melbourne's trail-blazing festival of "New cinema by, with and about people with a disability", says roles remain few and far between in Australia.

"There are a few films with minor roles played by people with disabilities, but there's still a long way to go. The major problem, though, is that we've got a shrinking film industry so it's really hard for new players to get a foothold."

Young agrees, adding that it's vital that disabled people are making the work as well as starring in other people's. "When we write about our own experience, we bring something to it that non-disabled people rarely manage to capture," she says.

Randall, who recently visited "disabled" film festivals in Athens and Munich, says the standard of work overseas is much higher.