The Focus on Ability Short Film Festival fosters a supportive environment where people can share their stories and learn more about disability. We spoke with Ryan Goodwin, the festival’s Creative Director, about how he has seen the festival grow over the last 15 years and the impact it is having on communities around the world.

How did the festival come to be and what does it champion?

An illustration of a movie clapper board and roll of film

The festival started in 2009. It was originally aimed at school students, to help them start thinking about inclusion from a young age.

We had a lot of success in that first year, so we opened it up to schools in New South Wales and then to schools all around the country. Then we opened it up to everyone in Australia. We started to get some interest from some countries overseas and it has grown every year.

We've had now over 3,200 films from 43 countries. We’ve also had screenings in about 7 or 8 different countries. This year, we expect to receive over 300 entries from about 20 countries. We've got some partnerships in Africa. Malawi has maybe 30 entries every year. Ethiopia has been a big one for us the last few years. America too. We've just started to do a bit of a push in Thailand through a partnership with the Australian Embassy over there.

We’ve kept true to our original purpose – to give people with disability an opportunity to tell their stories to an audience. The festival also gives people an opportunity to educate themselves on disability and thinking inclusively. It gives people the chance to work on projects that will create more opportunities for people with disability, whether it be in employment or in sporting field or in the local community.

I'm going to Spain next week, because I've been asked to present at the European Union Supported Employment conference. I’ll be presenting on the festival and showcasing the work we’re doing.

Why do you think filmmaking is such a powerful tool that people can connect with?

I think with the nature of film, you get to visualise disability. You get to hear about it. You get to see the impact that it may have on people's lives. You get to see all the skills that people may have that you didn't realise.

It’s also powerful to hear people’s stories. There are a few hospitals that use our film database. If a parent has a child with a disability they often get a full list of what their child might not be able to do and their limitations. Having access to our film database means they can look up a certain disability. Then they have this whole new world opened up because they can see the skills and attributes their son or daughter may end up having in a positive light, instead of what they can’t do.

How important is it that people with disability have the opportunity to tell their own stories in a way that is authentic to them?

We have a lot of participants who are school age and willing to tell their story on camera to give people a better understanding of what their life is like or to make the path easier for the person next in line. I think their bravery is highly commendable. That’s one thing that I take out every year.

These films get shared on social media and we have an online voting process, so people comment on the films from all over the world. Every year I'm astounded that I've rarely ever have to delete a comment because everything's so positive. It's a really good, positive community that the festival creates.

Do you find you get more entries that have been created by people with disability or that represent people with disability or both?

It's a real mixture and that's what I love. You get so many different perspectives. We've had some great stories that have been told by family members. We’ve also had participants that come from a film background or a storytelling background and have worked with a person with disability to understand their lives and figure out what message they might want to say. And they’ve been able to share this message really creatively through film.

Are there any past entries that have really struck you?

Yes, the list is huge. There was one from a few years ago called Not In Nature by a girl called Maya Linsky. It's a film about her experience of Autism. She busts different stereotypes about people with Autism in a really clever, artistic way.

There’s another film called Maybe Just a Little by a guy called Ming Dao Ting.

And another from 2022 from Windaroo Valley State High School, called Rylan’s Story – Autism is not a choice. The filmmaker is the sister of a boy named Rylan who has Autism. She’s able to get answers from him that only she would probably be able to get. It’s a personal, passionate video. It was the first film that she put together and it won a car – this was huge for their family. Rylan speaks within the film about some of the hardships that he's had at school; the bullying that he’s experienced and the consequences of that. The film got shown at local schools, including the school Rylan used to go to. This helped create a smoother path for him to go back to school.

Are there any success stories of films that have gone on to be included in other film festivals or events?

It’s something that we definitely encourage because we understand the work that goes into creating a film. We don't take full ownership over somebody's work. We want them to show it to the world as much as possible. We've had film films that have entered our festival that have gone on to win awards all around the world.

How can people get involved with the festival?

It’s good timing because entries close for the festival on 12 July 2024, so people still have plenty of time to get on and make a film.

We put all the films up in August for online voting and anyone from around the world can vote. We usually have upwards of 100,000 people vote. Over the course of the festival, we’ve had over 4 billion views.

In September, we go right around the country. We’ve got screenings in Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Canberra, Sydney, Launceston and Brisbane. The screenings are free to attend and they’re all accessible. We do the big awards event in September, in Sydney.

You can find more information on the Focus on Ability Short Film Festival website.