Eyes on the prize

Issue: Volume 95, Number 3

Posted: 22 February 2016
Reference #: 1H9cz0

Focus on Ability is an annual film-making competition and festival with a difference, which is fitting given that the competition celebrates diversity by highlighting just how much those living with disabilities are capable of.

The driving force behind the competition, now in its eighth year, is Australian firm Nova Employment, a recruitment company focused on promoting a simple message world wide: you won’t believe how wrong your preconceptions are regarding the abilities of people living with disabilities, in all areas of life. Sceptical? Come and check out the festival!

The original inspiration behind Focus on Ability came from Nova CEO Martin Wren. Back in 1988, Martin was chosen to lead a new company that had been recently endowed a modest grant, to help develop the careers of Sydney’s many motivated and skilled people with disabilities, and connect them with employers. Twenty-something years later, Nova now boasts 17 offices throughout Australia, testament to the fact that all employers need is a bit of eye-opening to see that people with disabilities bring resilience, enthusiasm, dedication and unique abilities to any role. The same applies to the general public, hence Focus on Ability: film is the best way to help the public see that the stigmas and clichés surrounding disability are meaningless at best, says Nova media and advertising manager Ryan Goodwin, who’s been running Focus on Ability since its inception.

“I think the format of the competition can give people great insight: film as a medium humanises the issue, it really gives the viewer an intimate look into the lives of people with disabilities. It helps people to understand, rather than just being told about all the great attributes that people with disabilities can bring to the workforce. You also get to hear from parents, co-workers, and others that are close to the people featured."

“For the people that help to make the films, they find themselves interacting with people with disabilities, and further breaking down barriers, perhaps in their own minds, and in the minds of others they talk to.”

Nova CEO, Martin Wren says that the initial idea was to get the message to high school students.

“We began by speaking to high schools, because in five years’ time, those students will become key members of the workforce, and, say, 15 years after that, they become employers themselves. So if we can look to influence their perceptions at a young age, and give them more knowledge around what people with disabilities can do, remove the stigmas, we’ve really achieved something.”

Carlson stars on the red carpet

Auckland’s Carlson School for Cerebral Palsy provides a supportive and sociable environment for kids living with a condition that, in the public imagination at least, exemplifies the stigma we can tend to apply to those with special needs. Cathy Herries, formerly Deputy Principal at Carlson, now with the Ministry of Education, knew right away that Focus on Ability could be the perfect vehicle for Carlson students to demonstrate for a broad audience what they can do, rather than, as is sadly more usual, being characterised by what they can’t do. She became the initial impetus for a group of keen film-makers at the school to get involved, around the theme ‘what we can do independently’. Cathy says no second invitation was needed.

“We used the theme of independence as a basis for the film because we wanted to show people what these boys can really do. I think that they are so often underestimated, but when given the opportunity these boys are able to – and will! – demonstrate a range of ability and capacity that really surprises people.”

With cash and prizes up for grabs – to the tune of more than $100,000 – the stakes, and the standards, are sky high. Susan Gauci is a current Carlson teacher, who became the adult assistant to the team of budding film-makers. She says the film the group produced captures perfectly the enthusiasm, determination, resilience, and ability of the boys who threw themselves so wholeheartedly into the project.

“We decided that we really wanted the students to showcase their strengths, and I think the film achieves that. We have our students drumming in the movie, reading, and doing lots of different things. The point was to showcase the interests that our students love so much, and demonstrate what they can do independently."

“Our film-making team are an outgoing, happy, amazing group of students. They’re very bright young boys, who just love coming to school, and love being part of the Carlson community. Every one of the group is a real character at our school! They’re also very determined young men."

“They were so excited at the chance to show the world what they can do, and so rapt at seeing themselves on screen. They still just love showing the video to volunteers and visitors at the school: it’s been a while now since we entered, but the students and their families are still so excited about the whole Focus on Ability journey we undertook.”

Susan says too that the film-making process itself has been one of affirmation and a source of pride, and not just for the boys involved.

“It’s had a really great impact on our whole community. My students sent emails out to everybody they know, encouraging them to watch the film, because they are so proud of what they’ve done."

“When I first met some of these students three years ago, they didn’t have a lot of confidence. Since then they’ve really grown, and the Focus on Ability film-making process and impact has helped a lot in that respect.”

Such was the quality of their entry, the boys from Room 5 were duly awarded a major prize in last year’s Focus on Ability competition. The win for the Carlson crew was announced at a red carpet event in Sydney, and their film ‘Boys with ability – and attitude’ was then showcased at the inaugural World Cerebral Palsy Day celebration event in Auckland. It seems the Carlson star just keeps rising: a screening is scheduled to take place at an event in the one and only Big Apple, New York City.

Susan sums up Carlson’s involvement in an experience that she hopes other schools will encourage their students with unique abilities to think about entering.

“The kids were just so eager to be involved. They loved the positive comments from people that they didn’t know. When they received the award, I let them know that people would be approaching them recognising them from the film. So I kind of think they felt a bit like movie stars! It’s still happening today: we went to another school recently, for a completely unrelated reason, and somebody approached two of our students, who were doing a dance performance, and someone said, ‘I saw you in that Focus on Ability film!’ It was really nice.”

Boys with ability – and attitude: In their own words

“It was a good experience, I enjoyed the chance to be on TV."

I felt happy being able to show people what I can do.” – Quinn

“The experience was cool. I got to spend time with my friends.

I feel excited about sharing what I can do.” – Miracle

“I enjoyed showing the video to my family at home. I felt surprised I got lots of positive feedback from everyone.” – William

“I felt happy when people recognised me after the movie went online. I had lots of fun making the video.” – Mafutaga

“The filming was a cool experience. I had fun helping to make the video.” – Vince

Focus On Ability Festival Highlights

In 2015, 163 films were produced and entered.

2015 winners shared in more than AU$100,000 in prizes.

The total prize pool is expected to expand to more that AU$130,000 in 2016.

10 of the winning 2015 films were screened on Australia’s free-to-air television network, SBS. Sixty films have been screening on pay television station Aurora.

The 2015 Focus on Ability Film Festival held screenings across Australia, as well as in Auckland and New York; many more are planned for 2016.

Total audiences for the 2015 festival numbered more than 1,000,000. This number is expected to grow in 2016.

Focus On Ability Film Festival 2016: What you need to know

Films are judged both by a professional panel, and through an online voting process.

There are separate prizes for each category.

Entries should have a run time of five minutes or less, excluding credits.

Ensure that you’ve read the terms and conditions.

The below are optional, but help with publicity of films. It’s highly recommended that you include these things in your entry:
  • include a brief synopsis of the film you’re entering
  • include a one-paragraph statement from the film-maker(s), relating to intent, idea etc.
  • include a one-paragraph biography of the film-maker(s)

For more information, go to focusonability.com.au(external link)


BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero, reporter@edgazette.govt.nz

Posted: 2:59 pm, 22 February 2016

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