A tall man with a generous smile approaches me in the foyer and introduces himself as Carl. His speech is clear but slightly stilted; my first though is that he has a stutter. But no, he explains, using a combination of gestures and carefully articulated words. He had a stroke. His brain is fine, but his speech is affected.
An hour later I see Carl again, this time projected onto a big screen in a town hall that has been converted into an accessible movie theatre. He is the star of Aphasia, a disarmingly lighthearted docudrama that recreates the story of the stroke of this actor, husband and father, his subsequent experience of the titular language disorder, and sometimes arduous journey back to the land of words.
Aphasia is a highlight of The Other Film Festival (TOFF), underway in Melbourne, which showcases films about, and by, people with experience of disabilities of various types and degrees. All sessions include captions and audio descriptions, audio loops that can be used to amplify or enhance sound quality, wheelchair access, and other services and facilities designed to optimise inclusion and accessibility.
Make no mistake: TOFF is no pity party. The tagline this year is 'What are you looking at?' — a brazen battle cry from those who have suffered discrimination because of their differences, as well as a clarion cry to the casual moviegoer to engage in films with substance, which can enhance the viewer's empathy for all their fellow human beings. It offers a program of high quality and great variety.
Such as angsty teen drama Aglaee, in which a gawky boy loses a bet and has to ask a classmate with a physical disability out on a date, and is humiliated when she turns him down. Or Ingelore, a stunning documentary about the experiences of a deaf Jewish girl in Nazi Germany. Or The Attack Of The Robots From Nebula-5, an idiosyncratic sci-fi homage that is also a deeply unsettling reflection on social alienation.
Aphasia — which screens Friday night at the festival — epitomises the quality of what's on offer. For a film to recreate factual experiences, using actors playing themselves, without stooping to mawkishness or self-indulgence, is in itself an achievement that should not be underestimated.
It does so by balancing humour and humanity. One of Carl's young children rides him cowboy style as he drags himself to the phone after his stroke. Later, recovering aphasic Carl, struggling with his 'f' words, tries to order a trademark icy soft drink from a fast food outlet, but instead of a 'Frozee' asks the female drive-thru attendant for a 'fuck'. Her grace and patience turn out to be a saving grace for Carl and a poignant highlight of the film.
In the foyer after the opening night screening, it's difficult to get another word with Carl. He's accosted by other patrons and guests who bathe in his gregarious personality and congratulate him on his fine and frank performance. Far from highlighting physical and mental deficiencies, The Other Film Festival is about celebrating the greatness that can be found in any human package.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. The Other Film Festival is on now until Sunday at Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, 521 Queensberry Street, North Melbourne. View the full program online