Saturday, April 13, 2024

Writer, Director, and Producer Anna Pakman Brings Disability Representation to the Buddy Comedy with “Wheelchair Money”

 To mark the 2024 Easterseals Disability Film Challenge (EDFC), I sat down with New York City writer, director, and producer Anna Pakman to hear about her latest contribution to the growing world of disability-inclusive cinema. 


The Film Challenge, founded by Nic Novicki, is now in its 11th year and since its inception, has featured hundreds of submissions from nations across the globe. The EDFC’s goal is to serve as a showcase for disabled talent in film, an industry that despite strides towards greater inclusivity, has largely failed to consider disability in the overdue conversation around fostering a more diverse body of professionals both in front of and behind the camera. In fact, according to a report by the Ruderman Family Foundation, around 95% of television characters with a disability are still played by nondisabled actors. 


Seeking to both increase opportunities for talented disabled folks on the film scene and tell more authentic disabled stories is a quest that for Pakman, is a passion. 


Born with cerebral palsy, she says that she has “craved authentic stories and representation since childhood” and through her work, sets out to give voice to perspectives that were missing from the media when she was growing up. Put simply, Pakman has found that the best way to advocate for those much-needed stories onscreen is to create them herself. 


Her first foray into the EDFC came in 2020 with her debut short, a documentary called “My Superpower”, featuring Liz Pritchard. Since then, each of her entries in the Challenge (“Social Fitness,” “Pandora,” and “Cripfished”) has been either a winner or a finalist. 


Pakman hopes this year’s submission will be no different.


 The 2024 EDFC genre, “buddy comedy”, invites her “back to her roots”, she shares, citing past training in comedy writing at New York’s Upright Citizens Brigade. 


Her take on the Challenge is “Wheelchair Money,” the distinctly New York tale of dynamic duo Johnny (Jessie Chin) and Whitney (Pamela Rae Schuller), who following an unwelcome insurance denial, find themselves on an absurdity- laden odyssey to sell Johnny’s mint condition Princess Diana Beanie Baby to fund Johnny's desperately needed new wheelchair. 


Featuring picturesque shots of New York’s iconic landmarks, the film is both a “love letter” to the city and a demand to address its most egregious examples of systemic ableism, with the most prominent being a convoluted, notoriously inaccessible mass transit system. Deemed “the perfect cinematic villain” by Pakman, New York’s archaic mass transit system (“MTA”) represents an omnipresent headache for thousands of New Yorkers with disabilities who experience it more as a government-funded obstacle course than a ride to work. As a wheelchair user herself, she has witnessed firsthand the labyrinth of broken or entirely absent elevators, and subway cars she calls “virtually unusable.” 


Using humor as her medium, Pakman hopes to raise awareness about the inaccessible structures and systems that have forced disabled New Yorkers to become “the ultimate problem solvers.” She also hopes to remind audiences that the mishaps, disasters, and urban fails associated with navigating the city are the consequences of conscious “policy choices” that deprioritize the needs of disabled citizens, despite those citizens representing about 1 in 4 Americans. 


“Wheelchair Money,” Pakman’s largest undertaking yet, required grueling 15- hour days, an unwavering commitment to teamwork, and the grit to overcome a weather-related setback…and yet, she emphasizes that building an accommodating and inclusive set was not difficult. For example, when scouting locations, Pakman sought wheelchair accessible restrooms nearby, given that the team has three power wheelchair users, including herself. 


Also crucial was taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on set. 


The ongoing threat of infection, which is more severe for disabled people with certain conditions, represents a safety consideration that Pakman takes seriously. Calling COVID precautions an important accommodation, she regards such measures as game-changers for those who may otherwise be unable to participate in the Challenge due to the risk of exposure. 


With sponsorship from Aptitude Medical, she provided PCR quality Metrix tests to all participants, a step she calls “the responsible and ethical thing to do,” despite the rollback of most industry- mandated COVID safety protocols. 


She implores other filmmakers to promote a COVID conscious set, especially given the increasing prevalence of Long COVID, which if contracted, could impact the livelihoods of the entire cast and crew. 


Using a 100% disabled “front of camera” cast, Pakman hopes to showcase her team’s talents and demonstrate that the inclusion of disabled actors is an investment with rich returns. 


Creating more opportunities for talented people with disabilities remains the driving force that “keeps me going” declares Pakman, amid the chaotic 5-day production schedule and the multitude of challenges that come with coordinating a cast and crew of busy working professionals. 


Danielle Perez, a disabled actress featured in Pakman’s 2022 entry, “Pandora,” was offered a role in the Spider-verse movie after Sony Pictures executives noticed her in the film. Pakman hopes the “unreal exposure” offered by the Film Challenge will continue to open doors for those in a frequently untapped pool of talent. 


The stakes are especially high this year, with the Adobe Foundation furnishing $15,000 production grants to turn winning shorts into a series or feature length film.


In addition to Schuller and Chin, who sparkle in their lead role debuts, “Wheelchair Money” boasts Mary von Aue as ex-girlfriend Felicia, Teresa Hui as the toy appraiser, and BJ Lange as the insurance agent, who bears the hilariously appropriate moniker, Gerald Douchet. Behind the scenes, Pakman partnered with Emmy-Award-winning Director of Photography Larry Langton to bring her vision to life. The participation of non-disabled crew members allowed her to build bridges across communities, demonstrating allyship and collaboration that Pakman treasures onset and off. 


When asked about the real-life happenings that serve as the catalyst for “Wheelchair Money,” she jokes that more often than most, she finds herself in zany situations in which she “can only laugh or cry.”


 Pakman, for one, is choosing to laugh.


To watch “Wheelchair Money” click here: Watch the film


To see all the 2024 entries, click here: 2024 Film Challenge Submissions

Two actors, a black person with a red power scooter and a white person with curly hair are on the Brooklyn Bridge in a film poster

Image: Wheelchair Money: A film by Anna Pakman. Two actors, a black person with a red power scooter and a white person with curly hair are on the Brooklyn Bridge in a film poster

1 comment:

  1. Fun short that I can absolutely relate to, and impressive that they pulled it together in five days!