Australia to America: short filmmaker presents at the Center for Media Innovation

Fights for inclusion in films

Written By Amanda Andrews, Co-News Editor

On Sept. 3, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., the Center for Media Innovation (CMI) hosted a special guest: award-winning Australian filmmaker Genevieve Clay-Smith, who gave a public talk on her journey of becoming an ally for people with disabilities and how she is changing the very core of the film industry with her work. Clay-Smith’s talk was a precursor to seven of her short films being screened from Sept. 4 through Sept. 11, at the ReelAbilities Pittsburgh Film Festival, presented by local organization Film Pittsburgh. 

ReelAbilities is an international film festival and is presented in various cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Los Angeles. The festival, initially started in Manhattan in 2007, was a pioneer in screening award-winning films about people with disabilities that included the input of people with disabilities in the filmmaking process. 

The event at the CMI, entitled “The Power of Inclusive Filmmaking,” was intended to reach local filmmakers, but was also open to the public. Tickets were $5 and admission was free for Point Park students. Clay-Smith previously spoke with KDKA about her films premiering at the festival. 

“I love any opportunity to share inclusive filmmaking overseas and beyond the shores of Australia. And I also love the ethos of the ReelAbilities Film Festival. I’ve known of the festival for a very long time, Bus Stop has had films screened at it for a very long time, so there was those two reasons,” Clay-Smith said. “I wanted to help to share what we do with an audience in another country, and I wanted to get further involved in ReelAbilities because I believe in the festival and I believe in the work that it does and I think it’s a very important festival. I think any festival that is promoting cinema that expresses the stories of people with disability is cinema that people need to pay attention to.”

Clay-Smith is the co-founder of two companies which work toward providing opportunities for people with disabilities. She is the executive director and former CEO of Bus Stop Films, a non-profit which educates people with disabilities about the film industry and gives life-changing experiences and employment opportunities for its students. 

Clay-Smith has noted that students with intellectual disabilities have experienced transformational growth during their studies at Bus Stop Films. 

“We…noticed an increase in literacy and writing skills, communication, verbal communication skills, and social skills, as well as work-ready skills—skills that are transferable to other industries, not just the film industry. So we ended up finding that film studies program was not just giving people access to education, it was having this transformational impact on people’s lives,” Clay-Smith said.

Clay-Smith began her talk with how she originally started making inclusive films and commercials, which now add up to 19 according to the Bus Stop Films website. When she was a 19-year-old filmmaker, Clay-Smith worked with the organization Down Syndrome New South Wales and documented their Up Up and Away program. Through this process, she met and interviewed several people with Down Syndrome and was inspired by one of the participants, Shakespeare enthusiast Gerard O’Dwyer, to make a film in which he was the lead actor. 

In 2009, their efforts were rewarded. The film, “Be My Brother,” won Best Film at TropFest, one of Australia’s biggest film festivals. Gerard O’Dwyer also won the award for Best Male Actor at the festival, and he now serves as an ambassador for Bus Stop Films. 

“And to this day, ten years on…I have never seen a negative consequence to inclusion,” Clay-Smith said.

Clay-Smith said the ultimate goal of the talk at the CMI was to communicate with Pittsburghers that inclusion is feasible and should be prioritized. 

“I hope that I help people to understand that inclusion is really simple and if we can be inclusive in the film industry, we can be inclusive in any industry,” Clay-Smith said. “Employment and equal opportunity for employment for people with disability is a human right. People should be able to access jobs of choice. Our workforces should be inclusive, and I hope that I’ve helped people [to] understand that inclusion isn’t hard, it doesn’t slow people down, it doesn’t compromise on quality. It’s an attitude and an action that creates social change.”

Clay-Smith’s talk was coordinated primarily by ReelAbilities and Film Pittsburgh. One of the organizers and executive director of Film Pittsburgh, Kathryn Spitz Cohan, described how the CMI became the venue for the event. 

“I am good friends with Laura Boyd and Cara Friez from the Cinema Arts Department,” Cohan said. “So I’ve known them and worked with them for years, and I reached out to them and said ‘you know I have this incredible filmmaker coming over from Australia and she doesn’t just want to come to the film festival and do a 20 minute Q&A. She would like to do a talk to filmmakers.’ And they suggested this, and I’ve walked by [the CMI] many times and think it’s amazing. So I immediately loved the idea of doing it here.”

Cohan is also familiar with Andrew Conte, the director of the CMI, who was very “amenable” to hosting Clay-Smith’s talk, according to Cohan. 

 “It’s great that we’re able to bring these kinds of events to campus,” Conte said. “I thought it was a really good opportunity.”