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Disabled Actors Are Center Stage in Indie Film ‘Daruma’



The indie film “Daruma” — which illustrates the importance of authentic casting with disabled actors — will hold its world premiere June 28, just a few days before the start of Disability Pride Month.

The film is part of the Dances With Films Festival, which runs June 22-July 2 at the TCL Chinese theaters in Hollywood.

The festival, in its 26th year, also will screen three documentaries about disabilities: “Abled,” directed by Einar Thorsteinsson about Paralympian Blake Leeper; “Baldy for the Blind” (producer-director Drea Castro), centering on a group of blind hikers attempting to climb Mt. Baldy; and “You Have No Idea” (director Alexander Jeffery), concerning a woman trying to get treatment for her autistic son.

There is also the short “Leak,” from writer-director Jordan Martin, a dystopian drama about a man and his deaf mother.

“Daruma,” directed by Alexander Yellen and written by Kelli McNeil-Yellen, is a character study of two friends driving across the country with one man’s young daughter. It stars Tobias Forrest and John W. Lawson, respectively a wheelchair-user and a double amputee, but their disabilities are incidental to the plot. 

Most mainstream films about disabled people feature name actors in the lead roles but director-cinematographer Yellen tells Variety, “We chose a different path by building our film around two authentically cast leads. This meant having to produce the film completely independently but ultimately I believe we have a better product for it.” The festival screening sold out quickly and he hopes the film “will validate our model for other filmmakers hoping to tell similar stories.”

Co-writer-producer McNeil-Yellen adds that there is a huge untapped market for similar works. “There’s an audience demanding to see content like this and the right partners, the smart partners, are going to see the value a film like ‘Daruma’ adds to their bottom line.”

The six screening rooms at TCL Chinese are wheelchair-accessible and festival founders Leslee Scallon and Michael Trent say a number of the films will be shown with descriptive audio headsets, subtitles and ASL interpreters.

The festival’s features-programming chair Ariana Farina said there has been an uptick in the number of disability-themed films in recent years. “These films have done incredibly well at the festival and beyond, oftentimes with sell-out screenings. I am hoping this is an indication of a recent shift in the industry funding and supporting more projects by disabled filmmakers.”

Apple TV+ film “CODA” broke barriers when it won the Oscar for best pic, but so far, there hasn’t yet been a flood of similar films. This year’s Hollywood fare includes “Champions,” directed by Bobby Farrelly, which Focus Features opened in March, with Woody Harrelson as a coach of a team with intellectual disabilities. 

The Sony release “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” includes work by actor-activist Nic Novicki (voicing Lego Spider-Man) and by Danielle Perez, voicing Sun Spider, who uses a mobility device. The film’s co-writers and producers, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, have been longtime advocates of hiring the disabled, as have the Farrelly brothers.

Also in a limited theatrical release and streaming is “Unidentified Objects,” starring Matthew Jeffers. 

Disability Pride Month commemorates the July 1990 occasion when President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act into law.


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