In celebration of the 10th Annual Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, founded by Nic Novicki, I caught up with writer, director, and producer Anna Pakman about her new project, a romance film called “Cripfished” which premiered at this year’s festival. Pakman, who has cerebral palsy, is a longtime advocate for authentic disability representation, with “Cripfished” featuring talented disabled performers in both of the film’s lead roles.
Pakman invites us, in her words, to “discover the love story” of Logan, described as a “non-binary serial dater” (Melissa Jennifer Gonzales, “Seeking Alice”) and Amy (Bree Klauser, Apple TV’s “SEE”, “Phreaks” on Audible), a visually impaired disability advocate. Logan, who will stop at nothing to win a date with Amy, pretends to be blind on a dating app, against the advice of (most) of their friends, and hilarity ensues. From this fateful decision, the film’s title is born, with “Cripfished” being a wink to two modern phenomena: “catfishing” and “cripface.” States Pakman, “catfishing, for anyone who doesn’t know or hasn’t seen the popular MTV show, is this online dating phenomenon where people create a persona online but when they show up in real life, they’re someone else completely.” She adds that “cripface,” a practice bemoaned by many in the disability community, occurs when [“they Hollywood filmmakers] cast someone who doesn’t have a disability to play a disabled character,” which Pakman emphasizes will “shut out actors with disabilities from being part of those projects.”
As a writer, director, and passionate cinephile, will have no such thing, adding that the role of Logan is played by an autistic actor and Amy by an actor who is legally blind both onscreen and in “real life.” Authenticity beyond the disability perspective is also important to Pakman, who shared that both characters, who are queer, are played by queer performers. Pakman calls Hollywood’s widespread use of “cripface” “particularly troubling” given that well-known actors (see: Eddie Redmayne in “The Theory of Everything”) often go on to win Oscars for essentially trying on an identity while hundreds, maybe thousands, of gifted actors who are actually disabled struggle to break into the business.
While Hollywood has overwhelmingly come to recognize the harm in actors’ pretending to be a different ethnicity, understanding that it is also unacceptable for non-disabled actors to imitate disability has been harder to foster. Says Pakman, “we don’t cast people who are Caucasian as being an ethnic minority and for good reason. One of the things I wanted to show [in my film] is that it’s also not okay to do that with disability.” Pakman credits her cast for helping her ensure the realistic portrayal of identities she does not share, calling the script “a team effort.” She praises Klauser, who is blind, for her insights in creating an authentic blind character.
Asked what else inspired her plotline, Pakman recounts a real-life catfish incident during which her date pretended to live in her neighborhood and was later revealed to be visiting from another country. Audiences both disabled and non-disabled will relate given the unpredictable and often absurd cyber landscape for today’s daters. The film’s humorous take of our app- happy social lives, propelled by a diverse female and non-binary cast, is perhaps the ultimate example of modern love. Not so long ago, Pakman and I joke, online dating was only for those looking to encounter an axe murderer. With online dating now mainstream, Pakman adds that technology has both “brought us closer together” and allowed unacceptable behavior, like that of the catfish, “to proliferate.” When presented with this year’s Film Challenge theme of romance, Pakman and her colleagues decided on a comedic tone for the project in an effort to capitalize on the team’s strengths. Featured in supporting roles are internationally renowned comedian Maysoon Zayid (“General Hospital,” CNN), Shashi Bangera, (“Sesame Street,” “Kelly & Kal”), Josey Miller, and Jillian Mercado from hit show “L Word: Generation Q”). Pakman emphasizes that she often tweaks her scripts based on who she feels is the best fit for the role, stating that her characters were originally written as “agnostic” to any disability or sexual orientation. However, when Gonzales and Klauser, both queer disabled folks, proved right for the job, their characters naturally became “queer, female-presenting” people.
Pakman commends the Film Challenge for offering immense creative freedom to its participants and for providing performers with disabilities a gateway to an industry that often excludes them. She notes that casting directors who want to be inclusive but are unsure where to find the talent have begun to reach out to the Film Challenge as a reliable source for those seeking quality disabled creatives.
Pakman’s commitment to disability inclusion does not end with authentic casting. She also worked diligently to create a COVID safe set, which she calls an access imperative for a community composed of many high-risk individuals. While not all disabled people are high risk, she likens her determination to be COVID conscious to “building a ramp”. Not everyone needs a ramp, but a ramp ensures everyone can participate. Similarly, her safety measures ensured that all individuals could be on her set, including those at greater risk of poor COVID outcomes, including herself. She cautions that no one should be “complacent” given the potentially devastating risk of severe symptoms or post-COVID sequelae, referred to as Long COVID.
On set precautions included the use of high-quality masks, testing, and a HEPA filter. Pakman calls these measures a “small investment” with the hugely important payoff of keeping the cast and crew safe. The COVID era has also illustrated the unique value of remote appearances, which allow film crews to work with a wider array of talent, including those who “just can’t be in your location” or have difficulty traveling.
When pressed about the takeaway message of “Cripfished,” Pakman said she hopes moviegoers with and without disabilities will feel “pride in who they are.” She feels hopeful about the future of disability representation in the media but laments a still miniscule number of disabled folks in the writers’ room for popular movies and television shows. She is quick to emphasize that disabled folks can provide critical insight not just on disability, but on any and every topic and in any and every role. Pakman wants to see people with disabilities recognized for the full range of their human experiences and feels that “we won’t have true equality” until a disabled actor can come in and “read for any role.” Those who are skeptical should be reminded, she adds, “that people with disabilities are everywhere” and belong in every place from schools to hospitals to business offices and cashier counters.
Audiences can “swipe right” on “Cripfished” beginning April 8 by going to the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMRMCKPmKPg .The film has open captions, with audio description coming soon.