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Erasing Stigma at the Reel Abilities Film Festival

Oak Park festival aims to "celebrate the diversity of our shared human experience."

Through movie screenings, panel discussions, art exhibits and music, the Reel Abilities Film Festival hopes to connect audiences to the talent and hard work of the developmentally disabled.

Modeled after the Reel Abilities festival in New York City, Chicago's version will take place at several venues throughout the Oak Park area. See below for a schedule and ticket information.

The festival is rooted in the response to a survey from the Community Mental Health Board of Oak Park Township, which revealed local residents still feel there's an overarching stigma to matters of developmental disability. The CMHBOP launched a separate education effort last fall, , geared at combating the stigma against mental illness.

"I was literally Googling 'film festivals' and came across [Reel Abilities,]" said Lisa DeVivo, CMHBOP's executive director. "This is the only one that exists that's dedicated to the abilities of people with disabilities."

DeVivo learned that the group funding the New York festival, the Saul Schottenstein Foundation, was looking to export the model to other locations across the country.

Then it clicked.

"If there is any place in the state of Illinois for this, it's Oak Park," DeVivo said. "We have the right feel. It's a compassionate community."

Five critically acclaimed movies will be shown throughout the weekend, which actually begins on Wednesday April 25, when organizers will kick off the festival at the Lake Theatre, 1022 Lake St. in Oak Park with a screening of Snow Cake, a 2006 drama which stars Sigourney Weaver as a high-functioning autistic mother. (New York Times review)

But more than just film screenings, the festival brings together panelists for group discussions as well as art exhibits, live music and dance performances to foster a sense of interaction — and to help break through the remaining social stigma.

The Reel Abilities Festival is produced by a handful of local resource agencies for the developmentally disabled, including Aspire, Community Support Services, Oak-Leyden Developmental Services and Seguin Services. It's sponsored by the Community Mental Health Board of Oak Park Township and the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation.

Below is the schedule of films, with descriptions from festival organizers. Tickets cost $10 each (or $7 for students and seniors) and can be purchased here.

Snow Cake

Alex, an ex-convict on a road trip, picks up Vivienne, an eccentric hitchhiker. A serious car accident kills Vivienne, prompting Alex to visit Vivienne’s mother, a woman with high-functioning autism. Alex learns about her uniqueness as he struggles to come to terms with his own grief. Wednesday, April 25; 7 p.m. at the , 1022 Lake St.

Praying with Lior

Lior has Down syndrome, and has spent his entire life praying with utter abandon. As Lior approaches his Bar Mitzvah, different characters provide a window into life spent “praying with Lior.” The movie poses difficult questions such as what is “disability” and who really talks to God? Saturday, April 28; 7 p.m. at , 460 Lake St. in Oak Park; Performance by the Chris Burke Band to follow.

Among the Giants

The story of Adaptive Design Association, a nonprofit organization that builds customized equipment for kids and adults with disabilities, is told through two individuals who have sought help. Among The Giants brings up the topics of design, adaptation, independence, strength and courage. Sunday, April 29; 1:30 p.m. at , 605 Lake St. in Oak Park; Performance by MOMENTA accompanies the film screening

Crooked Beauty

A poetic documentary chronicling artist-activist Jacks McNamara's transformative journey from childhood abuse to psych ward inpatient to pioneering mental health advocacy.

Shooting Beauty

The story of an aspiring fashion photographer, Courtney Bent, who discovers a hidden world of beauty at a center for people living with significant disabilities.

Crooked Beauty and Shooting Beauty will be screened Sunday, April 29; 5 p.m. at SideBar, located at FitzGerald's Night Club, 6615 Roosevelt Road in Berwyn. In addition to the film screening, the Arts of Life band will perform.

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