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Release: March 17, 1999

UI 'Screening Disability' conference to examine film portrayal of disabilities

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A group of national and international experts in disability studies and in film studies will gather at the University of Iowa March 26-28 for the first-ever conference examining the representation of disabilities in movies.

"Screening Disability: A Conference on Cinema and Disability" will include screenings of two films depicting the lives of disabled people as well as a discussion with the director of one of the films, Billy Golfus.

The conference will take place in the John Pappajohn Business Administration Building (PBAB) on the UI campus. It is free and open to the public and no registration is required.

Anyone who lives with a disability, has a disabled friend or family member, or has an interest in film will find the conference enlightening, said Christopher Smit, a UI graduate student and conference organizer.

"I hope people will come who love film, care about what film means to culture, and are concerned about disability issues," Smit said. He said that he hopes the non-academics who come to the conference will be able to add an element of real life experience to the academic discussions.

The professors and graduate students who will attend the conference and present papers are coming from 17 universities all over the world. Several participants are coming from Canadian universities, one is from South Africa and another is from Morocco.

Smit said the primary goal of the conference is to attempt to understand these films in a new way, giving attention to how they present the phenomenon of disability, what they contribute to our society's perception of disability, and how people can use such films to understand the nature of being human.

Smit and two fellow graduate students, Prakash Younger and Anthony Enns, have been planning this conference for a year and a half with the support of the Cinema and Disability Group, an ad-hoc student group associated with the UI Institute for Cinema and Culture.

Too often, Smit said, films that portray disabled characters are classified as "political statements" and are analyzed only for their commentary on the status of the disabled in society.

"When this happens, we lose the medium," Smit said. "We need to look at these films as art and appreciate their cultural significance not only in the representations of disabled people but in the power of the film itself."

"Screening Disability" is sponsored by: The University of Iowa Foundation, Humanities Iowa, National Endowment for the Humanities, Institute for Cinema and Culture, University of Iowa Student Government, UI Office of Affirmative Action, Assistant Provost for Health Sciences, Wild Bill's Cafe, Graphic Printing, INC, and Two Fish Design.

For more information or to arrange interviews with any of the conference participants contact Christopher Smit at (319) 351-6134 or

Following is a schedule of conference events and discussions:

Friday, March 26
6:30 PM W10 PBAB
Welcome by Christopher R. Smit of the Cinema and Disability Group
Screening of the movie "Bill," followed by a discussion led by Tom Walz, a UI professor of social work and author of "The Unlikely Celebrity: Bill Sackter's Triumph Over Disability"

Saturday, March 27
8-10 a.m. S401 PBAB
Perspectives on Tod Browning
"Tod Browning," by Oliver Gaycken (University of Chicago)
"Disabling the Viewer: Perceptions of Disability in Tod Browning's Freaks," by Sally Chivers (McGill University), Meira Cook (University of British Columbia), and Nicole Markotic (University of Calgary)

10-11 a.m. S401 PBAB
Historicizing The Hunchback of Notre Dame
"Lost and Found in Translation: Adaptations of Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris," by Laurie E. Harnick (University of Western Ontario)
"The Image of Physical Disability in American Film: The Case of The Hunchback of Notre Dame," by Patrick J. Devlieger and Carlos Drazen (University of Illinois at Chicago)

11 a.m.-12 p.m. S401 PBAB
Disability In World Cinema
"Representations of the Disabled in Moroccan Cinema," by El Alami (Al Akahawayn University, Morocco)
"Disability and the Films of John Woo," by Anthony Enns (University of Iowa)

1:30 p.m. S401 PBAB
Keynote Address
"American Dreams, American Nightmares: Some Reflections on Motion Picture Portrayals of People With Disabilities," by Professor Paul K. Longmore (San Francisco State University)

3-5 p.m. Concurrent Sessions
Representing Vietnam (S401 PBAB)
"From Horror to Healing: Dealing With Vietnam Through Film and Photography," by Jennifer Tiernan (University of Iowa)
"Trapped in the Affection-Image: American Cinema's Post Traumatic Cycle (1967-76)," by Christian Keathley (University of Iowa)
"Vietnam Films and the Disabled," by Lisa Y. Kamitaki (San Francisco, CA)

Sexuality And Gaze Theory W401 PBAB
"It's Not Polite to Stare: The Gaze, Disability, and Film," by Johnson Cheu (Ohio State University)
"Sexy Cyborgs: Disability and Erotic Politics in Cronenberg's Crash," by James L. Cherney (Indiana University)
"Pathways to Power: Disability Imagery and Passion Fish," by Leslie Harris (South Africa)

7 p.m. W10 PBAB
Film screening "When Billy Broke His Head," followed by a presentation by filmmaker Billy Golfus, including a question and answer session with audience

Sunday, March 28
8-10 a.m. S401 PBAB
Pedagogical Perspectives
"Disability Imagery in the Movies: Teaching Critical Viewing Skills," by Stephen Safran (Ohio University) and Joan Safran (Ohio University)
"The Fusion of Film Studies and Disability Studies," by Thomas B. Hoeksema (Calvin College) and Christopher R. Smit (University of Iowa)

10 a.m.-12 p.m. Concurrent Sessions
Mental Illness As Metaphor S401 PBAB
"Disability and the Dysfunctional Family in Wayne Wang's Smoke," by Lou Ann Thompson (Texas Woman's University)
"The Inner Life of Ordinary People," by Patrick E. Horrigan (Long Island University, Brooklyn)
"Damaged Whiteness: Disabled Male Bodies in Contemporary Melodramas" by Martti Lahti (University of Iowa)

Perceptual Modes: Deafness and Blindness In Film W401 PBAB
"Deafness in American Cinema, or Why is There So Much Music in Movies About Deaf People?" by Doug Baynton (University of Iowa)
"The Noble Ruined Body: Blindness and Visual Prosthetics in Three Science Fiction Films," by Susan Crutchfield
"Boundaries and Separateness Between Deaf and Hearing People in Children of a Lesser God," by Nadezhda V. Shapkina (University of Tennessee)

1:30 p.m. S401 PBAB
Keynote Address
"Hollywood, Politics, and Physical Disability," by Martin Norden (Universty of Massachusetts-Amherst)

3 p.m. Town Meeting S401 PBAB
Plenary session: "The Future of Cinema and Disability"