Margarita with a Straw + ReelAbilities Film Festival

24 02 2017

margarita-with-a-strawReelAbilities Film Festival – Houston

In his 2016 book “But What If We’re Wrong?,” cultural critic Chuck Klosterman attempted to predict where our age’s great hidden text lies. What future generations tend to remember about bygone eras are works that did not receive proper due in their own time – in part because cultural archaeologists have an esoteric’s activist mentality when canonizing art. His guess was a Native American writing on a message board on the Dark Web, citing the relative paucity of attention given to each.

Far be it from me to make such a sweeping prophecy, but I do think there’s a decent chance that disabilities could factor into that conversation about overlooked, undervalued culture. There are countless courageous Americans fighting daily for the disability community, though their efforts never seem to pierce the public consciousness in the way that movements surrounding civil rights or marriage equality have. To be clear, it’s the people on the ground working for substantive policy gains who make the real change – yet popular culture can also play a large role in changing hearts and minds.

Margarita with a Straw,” which I saw as part of Houston’s ReelAbilties Film Festival, could help reverse the trend. I so often associate narratives surrounding disability with clichéd struggles and hokey uplift. We’re regularly encouraged to see these individuals as victims, afflicted with some condition they cannot control and acted upon rather than serving as active agents in their own stories. Shonali Bose’s film, which also played such prestigious festivals as Toronto and London, does none of these things. (Although I should add that it does contain some elements of wish fulfillment to the detriment of the overall film.)

The protagonist Laila is a person above all, a young adult with a passion for music and a little bit of wanderlust that directly conflicts with her provincial Indian family’s desires. While pursuing a degree abroad at NYU, Laila’s openness to life and unbridled enthusiasm brings her into the romantic orbit of peers from both genders. The film never downplays her disability and the way it affects her story, but “Margarita with a Straw” is not about that part of her. It’s about her journey of self-discovery in her bisexuality. Not to take away from what Bose accomplishes here, but I spent much of the film thinking about the range of stories still left to tell in this community. I look forward to seeing what lies ahead for ReelAbilties in the years to come.


February film festivals around Houston

11 02 2016

It’s currently the dog days of winter at the movies – the awards movies have had their chance to relish in post-nomination success but we have yet to reach a point where the new year’s good films come out to play. (Sorry, “Deadpool,” you just don’t cut it for me.) For me personally, after the dual onslaught of end-of-year prestige films and Sundance, February has me wanting to dive into a book. Or catch up on all the TV everyone raved about for the past few months…

It’s the perfect time, in fact, to go off the beaten path for a little while and see what else is brewing on screen. For those in my native Houston, there are two great opportunities to see some things your multiplex would never program.

I’m talking, of course, about two film festivals, ReelAbilities and the Texas Christian Film Festival.


The first, ReelAbilities, is celebrating its fourth year of promoting inclusion and acceptance in town. Their programming focuses on those struggling with and overcoming disabilities of all kinds – physical or mental. Given that many conversations in the film world have recently focused on ensuring diverse representation of many races on screen, it’s important to see groups like ReelAbilities expanding the conversation. One of the great things film can do is provide a remarkable verisimilitude that sparks recognition. Seeing yourself reflected in the characters means the world to those who feel like no one understands their experiences.

The festival runs from February 14-18; the primary venue is Edwards Greenway Grand Palace. A variety of speakers, panels and talkbacks accompany screenings. Oh, yeah, and it’s free.

Get your free tickets here!

20140122-085721.jpgThe Texas Christian Film Festival runs a little later in the month: February 25-27. It’s another festival heavy on guest speakers and interactivity, kicking off with a screening of “9o Minutes in Heaven” with real-life subject Don Piper appearing in person for a Q&A. They will feature a number of other faith-based films, including 2014’s “Gimme Shelter.” Back when that film opened, I had the chance to interview director Ronald Krauss, star Vanessa Hudgens and real-life subject Kathy DiFiore.

While, admittedly, I had my issues with the film, I found DiFiore a true inspiration. Here’s an excerpt from my interview:

DiFiore stayed behind in the room to further elaborate on her mission through Several Sources Shelters.  When she opened up to talk about herself and not the movie, DiFiore’s incredible compassion becomes readily apparent.  She radiates an unflappable confidence that just makes you want to be a better person.  “I’ll find out when I go to heaven,” she stated without an iota of doubt, “but I think [Mother Teresa] is the patron saint of this movie.”

The shelter was only able to operate legally in New Jersey thanks to Mother Teresa’s help.  Quite literally an answered prayer, the Catholic icon threw her support behind the state’s DiFiore bill that would allow charities to run a boarding house.  The whole saga as narrated by DiFiore sounds like another compelling movie in and of itself, but it’s unlikely that you’ll see the story coming to a theater near you.  She’s far too humble to take center stage.

The Texas Christian Film Festival takes place at Bethany Christian Church. Tickets are free on their website while supplies last.

I’ve provided coverage from many world-class film festivals – Cannes, Telluride, New York, etc. – but I hope I have never radiated an aura that a film festival has to be some kind of elite institution. At its core, a film festival brings people together for an artistic communion around social viewing. It’s a very public reaffirmation of the power that a combination of images and sound can wield.

In fact, some of these more niche festivals provide for some of the more unique viewing experiences. If everyone has gathered at such an event, it means they share some interest in the subject with you. So start up a conversation, because festivals are fantastic incubators for compelling and necessary societal dialogue.