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Debra Pinger seeks to reinvent ReelAbilities as the major film festival Cincinnati is missing

Debra PingerDebra Pinger PHOTO: HAILEY BOLLINGER

The current trend in the film industry is the reboot —taking an old formula or beloved classic narrative and reconfiguring it with contemporary updates. The more difficult task, however, is the reinvention, because to truly make something new again — whether a movie or a film festival — there has to be an appreciation for the past and a willingness to incorporate the best of that history into the new iteration.

That’s the attempt being made this Thursday through Sunday when the ReelAbilities Film Festival occurs at the Duke Energy Convention Center. The schedule is available at reelabilities.org. The festival is presented by Cincinnati’s Living Arrangements for the Developmentally Disabled (LADD).

From the start nationally, ReelAbilities has organically embraced reinvention. According to Susan Brownknight, LADD’s executive director, the ReelAbilities NY Disabilities Film Festival was initiated at the JCC Manhattan in 2007 as a first-of-its-kind event to present award-winning films by and about people with disabilities.

Cincinnati was the first city to follow when a trustee of the Saul Schottenstein Foundation B — a nonprofit dedicated to “changing perceptions, fostering acceptance and promoting oneness” — arranged for it to be held at the Mayerson JCC in 2011. The following year LADD was approached to take over the management of the Cincinnati ReelAbilities Film Festival and, in 2013, one occurred here under the co-sponsorship of LADD and Visionaries + Voices.

In 2014, LADD took over management of ReelAbilities nationally. It helped other cities establish festivals as well; there are now ReelAbilities Film Festivals in 15 North American cities, including Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. Each of the other festivals is run by a local nonprofit organization that is supported by LADD. This weekend’s festival will be LADD’s third in Cincinnati; there was one in 2015 using multiple locations over an eight-day span.

Entering a transitional phase, the Cincinnati team tapped Debra Pinger as the new director of the Cincinnati film festival. She has roots in the region, but more than that, she has an appropriate background. In a recent interview, she describes herself as being “on that edge between entertainment and meaningful content.”

“I’ve been in television news, where we had to have that entertainment side,” she says. “We had to be fun. I was always a feature news reporter with an interest in how the pictures and the sound went together because it’s all like a minifilm.”

In 2010, Pinger answered a calling in Nashville when she joined the Nashville Film Festival, first as the development director and then as the managing director. “When I found the film festival, it was just where I belonged,” she says.

She took on one of the nation’s largest film festivals in Nashville, managing sponsors, media and government relations in addition to festival marketing. Nashville’s festival spans 10 days and screens over 200 films — from a pool of more than 4,000 submissions —with three competitions (film, screenwriting and music). It draws in guests and filmmakers from around the world.

As Pinger considered moving here, she quickly realized that Cincinnati doesn’t have a major film festival.

“It’s hard to believe, to me,” she says. “We live in a time when there are 4,500 film festivals, and almost all of them started in the late 1960s or the early 1970s. So where is Cincinnati’s major film festival?”

Pinger made the case, to herself, that Cincinnati had a solid regional base in terms of festivals, but no major national or international focus.

“We have a passionate community of filmmakers here,” she says. “We have the 48-Hour Film Festival. We have the Jewish Film Festival that’s very well put-together and very well attended. And then we have the ReelAbilities Film Festival.”

And it is on the ReelAbilities Film Festival foundation that Pinger aims to build Cincinnati’s premier event. To that end, ReelAbilities embarked on an ambitious plan to develop a network of sponsors and hosting agencies for each festival screening.

Sponsorship entails everything “from funding to venues to in-kind donations,” she says. That makes every screening and event possible. The 28 local hosting agencies provide services to people experiencing differences and disabilities.

In keeping with the collaborative partnership goals, the festival has insured that 90 percent of the revenue from ticket sales will be channeled back to those agencies. That means the festival will have a tangible impact on organizations like 4 Paws for Ability, which is dedicated to the placement of assistance dogs; Building Blocks for Kids, which links products and services to children with physical, emotional and developmental challenges; and a host of others.

If reinvention truly is the name of the new game, with Pinger at the helm, ReelAbilities hopes to be in position to build a long-term film festival that has a sizeable impact on the city.

ReelAbilities Film Festival Expands the Notion of Diversity

 It is fitting that as we turn the page on the recent Academy Awards season, which has been seen as a model for recognition of diverse representations onscreen, Cincinnati plays host to the 2017 ReelAbilities Film Festival, a four-day series of screenings and events dedicated to truly expanding the practical definitions of ability and diversity. It occurs Thursday through Sunday at the Duke Energy Convention Center.

The scale of the festival aims for Hollywood-style epic grandeur, with 24 features and about 40 short films, star-studded parties, workshops, special events, speakers and lounges all revolving around spotlighting the stories and lives of people who experience disabilities. Seeking to break out of the marginalized notions we have of the “disability” label, the overall event will shift the paradigm, revealing a new focus on abilities and the various ways people contribute to the social and cultural landscape.

The festival kicks off at 10 a.m. Thursday in the lobby of the convention center with a Welcome to Cincinnati: Meet the Stars event that is free and open to the public. Then, at noon, there is a ticketed luncheon featuring RJ Mitte, best known for playing Walter “Flynn” White Jr. on AMC’s Emmy-winning series Breaking Bad. He will be the first of a parade of performers and highly visible personalities on hand throughout the festival.

Mitte serves as a prime example of that inspiring statement Viola Davis made during her acceptance speech following her Best Supporting Actress win for Fences. She talked about being part of “the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” While Mitte has cerebral palsy, his is less severe than his Breaking Bad character’s, meaning he had to adjust to crutches and slur his speech for the role. He then assumed the lead role in the filmDixieland, which premiered at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, portraying a character without a disability. (It is not in this festival.) In addition, Mitte took to the runway as part of Men’s Fashion Week in Milan, Berlin and New York City.  

For a film festival, such celebrations of life, diversity and ability tend to zero in on the reflections found on the screen. While that aspect will command its fair share of attention, audiences should take advantage of the opportunity to interact with and be engaged by performers like Mitte and Jamie Brewer, who played Adelaide “Addie” Langdon on American Horror Story and will also be at the luncheon and elsewhere. An actress and model, she also has Down syndrome and is an advocate for others with that disability.

Another guest, Lauren Potter (Becky Jackson from the television series Glee), uses her platform as a successful actress with Down syndrome to raise awareness both for disability causes and serve as a staunch anti-bullying advocate. President Barack Obama appointed her to his Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities back in 2011, and four years later she served as an ambassador for the Special Olympics World Games. She’s appearing at the festival in support of her role in the short filmGuest Room.

The 2017 ReelAbilities Film Festival fulfills its mission of promoting “awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different abilities” by creating a forum where its guests can step off the screen and into our communities and lives. Over the course of this action-packed weekend, we all get to participate in this celebration of life and see ourselves within a diverse and ever-expanding community.

Critic’s Picks 

CUERDAS (STRINGS) (9:15 a.m. Friday and 10 a.m. Saturday)

This 10-minute animated short from Spanish writer-director Pedro Solís García illuminates a friendship that develops between María and a new student at her school named Nicholas, who has cerebral palsy. Featured as part of the Family Fun shorts program.


Those outside the world of Jazz probably have no idea about the life of the late Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a legend to those who love the music. Born blind and then paralyzed by a stroke as an adult, music became his resource for connection and communication, as well as his means of “seeing” and appreciating the world. Documentarian Adam Kahan’s 2014 film highlights how everything around Kirk held the potential to be used as an instrument and how sound helped him define the rhythms and cadences of life. The Case of the Three-Sided Dreamwill be paired with the seven-minute short Chimes for Tyler, which explores the story of Tyler Doi, an autistic savant with a love of wind chimes. His highly evolved aural senses allow him to distinguish the sounds of the entire inventory of Woodstock chimes.

GUEST ROOM (4:30 p.m. Saturday)

Included in the Coming of Age shorts program, this film from writer-director Joshua Tate captures the journey of Amber (Lauren Potter, from Glee), a young woman with Down syndrome who must make tough choices after an unplanned pregnancy with her boyfriend (Michael Iovine).

SANCTUARY (1:45 p.m. Sunday)

This feature from Len Collin dramatizes the harsh realities in Ireland, where premarital sex between people with developmental disabilities is outlawed. Larry (Kieran Coppinger), a young man with Down syndrome, and Sophie (Charlene Kelly), a young woman with epilepsy, fall in love and challenge the accepted norms. The film displays all of the breezy and idiosyncratic charm of an indie rom-com.

HOW TO DANCE IN OHIO (4 p.m. Sunday)

Alexandra Shiva’s 2015 Columbus-set documentary focuses on a group of teenagers and young adults on the autism spectrum as each prepares for a spring formal dance, organized by their clinical psychologist. Over the course of 12 weeks, they work with Dr. Emilio Amigo to face the challenges of traditional prom-night events such as choosing dates, outfits and the prom’s king and queen. The real tests, however, involve overcoming the anxieties of first dances, kisses, etc., while appreciating the magic of this adulthood rite. How to Dance in Ohio was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

ENDLESS ABILITIES (4:15 p.m. Sunday)

Directors Harvey Burrell and Tripp Clemens hone in on four best friends who set off on a cross-country journey seeking out adaptive sports for individuals with physical disabilities. Moving beyond organized events like the Paralympics, they focus on the commonality of achievement and competition that drives each and every one of us. The quartet climbs rocks with blind climbing enthusiasts, plays soccer with quadriplegics and hits the pool with swimmers with muscular dystrophy, proving how sports truly level the playing field.

GEORGE SMITH (7:15 p.m. Sunday)

This five-minute short from director Chris Ashwell spotlights the inspirational story of George Smith, a 1980s-era professional baseball player rendered permanently disabled after an auto accident who, rather than giving up on his dream, continues to share his knowledge and expertise with new generations of kids in the Walnut Hills community. It’s part of the Local Films shorts package.

The REELABILITIES FILM FESTIVAL takes place Thursday-Sunday at the Duke Energy Convention Center. Tickets/more info: cincyra.org.