The organizers of Toronto’s ReelAbilities Film Festival, or RAFFTO, have a mission to engage audiences and bring to the fore conversations about deafness, disability, diversity, and mental health. However, that doesn’t mean there is no room for laughter.
This year’s seven-day festival will open with the delightful romantic comedy Keep the Change. An award winner at the Tribeca Film Festival, Rachel Israel’s feature début focuses on the touching relationship between two Jewish New Yorkers with autism. The film’s male protagonist, David (played by Brandon Polansky), has no shortage of bawdy jokes.
Meanwhile, the yuks will continue on Wednesday evening, when three Canadian comedians – each with a lived experience of disability – take the stage for the festival’s first comedy night at Innis Town Hall.
“There’s a lot of funny stuff that happens when you’re dealing with barriers and pushing against barriers,” says Liviya Mendelsohn, RAFFTO’s artistic director. “You’ve got to have a good sense of humour to get through a world that isn’t designed for you.”
While comedy is not the unifying theme of the festival, these droll and appealing approaches to serious topics should add variety to an already fascinating festival slate.
Keep the Change was inspired by Polansky’s real-life experience meeting a girlfriend at the Manhattan JCC.
Israel made a short film of the same name with him and actor Samantha Elisofon as her thesis project at Columbia University. Both actors were on the autism spectrum and had never been in a film before.
“I had already written a draft of the feature before I made the short,” Israel says. “The original draft… was more focused on the family drama surrounding this new relationship. In making the short, I got to concentrate on the love story, and decided I wanted the feature to be a love story.”
Israel says that many of the actors she auditioned for the female lead were neurotypical, which made the choice to cast Elisofon, who has autism, a no-brainer.
Jessica Walter, best known as the matriarch on Arrested Development, gives a terrific supporting turn as the protagonist’s close-minded mother.
A film like Keep the Change should be a “catalyst for empathy and understanding,” Mendelsohn says.
“We love the casting choices [Israel] made,” she adds. “In some ways, it’s a classic romance, complete with a trip to Coney Island. It’s got that Hollywood feel, which is fun, but there’s such a twist to it.”
RAFFTO, which launches on May 29, does not just open with Jewish content. The Israeli drama Scaffolding, which played at TIFF in September, is the closing night film on June 4. Matan Yair’s drama focuses on a high-school student with a learning disability who forms an unexpected bond with his literature teacher.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the Israeli community about [Scaffolding],” Mendelsohn tells The CJN.
The artistic director adds that a third of the programming slate is devoted to Canadian entries. This year’s national selections include Step Into My World, a short from Toronto director Nicola Di Capua’s about a hearing person trying to work on the set of a film where the entire cast and crew are deaf.
Another title bound to spark discussion is The Barber of Augusta, which tells the story of local hairstylist Matthew Genser. The 26-minute doc, screening on May 31, looks at Genser’s struggles with mental health as well as his altruistic journey to give free haircuts, in superhero costumes, to homeless Torontonians.
One recommendation coming from south of the border is Mr. Connolly Has ALS. Dan Habib’s documentary short looks at a beloved high-school principal with ALS who invites his students to ask him questions about his life and condition.
Fittingly, RAFFTO’s 23 features and shorts will be presented in wheelchair-accessible venues, with open captioning or subtitles.
Keep the Change opens the festival on Tuesday, May 29. Tickets to opening night are available at the ReelAbilities Toronto website.