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Disability gets high billing at film maker's festival

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Emma Emma | 12:34 UK time, Wednesday, 13 June 2012

The members of Name Day, whose film Punk Syndrome will show at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest

Name Day, the learning disabled band featured in the film Punk Syndrome, showing at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest

A respected annual event for the TV and film industry starts today and will be showing a significant number of new films which feature disabled people.

The Sheffield Doc/Fest has seven disability related documentaries on its programme this year, a number which reflects the growing interest in the subject by UK broadcasters and audiences.

Disability themed documentaries have risen to become a regular part of the TV schedules in 2012, with the BBC's Beyond Disability season and Channel 4's Undateables being high profile examples so far.

Previously, broadcasters appeared to shy away from the subject, perhaps believing there wasn't an appetite for it or due to an anxiety they might accidentally upset disabled people.

Hussain Currimbhoy, curator for the 18 year-old industry event, admits to having had many "wrong" disability themed documentaries cross his path in the past.

"The directors don't really understand the person they are working with, standing too far back, not really becoming part of their lives and seeing their point of view."

But, he says, documentary makers have grown up in the lifetime of the festival, learning more about what makes a good story year on year.

Up to two thousand producers and industry experts are expected to come together to learn new skills, pitch ideas and show off their latest work in the South Yorkshire city over the next few days.

Hussain thinks there's "something in the ether" this year and believes film makers have started to understand disability a bit better.

"In the films we picked up this year, the makers treat the disabled people involved with some kind of new respect, not like there's something wrong with them. The characters are funny and very watchable. You can see what drives them."

One of the documentaries in particular has grabbed Hussain's attention.

"Lost in Sound is about three people with hearing disabilities who are involved in music. The way they feel music, and experience it, is like nothing I've ever seen before."

Music and disability is reflected in two other films on the bill at Sheffield this year: Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is the story of a musician with motor neuron disease. And festival-goers can also see Punk Syndrome, a film about a learning disabled band from Holland who are also due to play live at the event.

Documentaries about sex and disability, an untypical love story and the man with the world's biggest light bulb collection also feature.

Though other areas of minority interest have their own category at the festival, such as Middle East, Euro, gay culture, and activism, there isn't a dedicated Disability category despite the number of documentaries to be shown on the subject.

Hussain says this is deliberate and he has chosen to pepper disability themed films throughout the programme. He explains:

"In years gone by, disability documentaries have been self-centred for the film-maker, not about the disabled people involved. They thought 'isn't this sad?' or, 'wow, it is a miracle'."

But he doesn't see it as sad and respects that many disabled people don't like to be labelled or ghettoised, he says: "It's about people having a good life and not wishing to be put in a corner.

"I want the documentaries watched for the music or the art, not the disability. That's why there's no dedicated strand."

The international documentary festival Sheffield Doc/Fest takes place from 13 to 17 June 2012. Information about the disability related documentaries on the bill, including trailers and future screenings, can be found on the event website.

What aspect of disability life would you like to see turned into a film or documentary? Where are the best and most engaging stories? Which people need to be introduced to the nation on their TV screens and why? Tell us your ideas in the comments below or on our social media.

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