Interview with Festival Coordinator Emily Smith Beitiks (Superfest: International Disability Film Festival)

Superfest: International Disability Film Festival is a showcase of juried films held in the San Francisco Bay Area. For nearly 30 years, this annual competition has celebrated cutting-edge cinema that portrays disability in all its diverse, complex, and empowering facets. We are proud to be the longest running disability film festival in the world.

Interview with Emily Smith Beitiks:

Matthew Toffolo: What is your Film Festival succeeding at doing for filmmakers?

Emily Smith Beitiks: Superfest provides an opportunity for filmmakers to tell stories about disability that are more nuanced and complex than what we typically see in Hollywood, unfortunately. We celebrate the work of filmmakers with disability and explore how the insights of living with a disability enrich their work. In addition, we work closely with our filmmakers to help them get their films audio described and captioned. Even though the films are about disability, many filmmakers have never considered the importance of making films accessible to people with disabilities. We coach them on how they can go about this, as it is a mandatory requirement for all films that screen at our festival.

MT: What would you expect to experience if you attend the festival this year (2016)?

EMB: Our 2016 attendees will experience some exceptional films that will push our audiences to reconsider what they know about disability and disabled people worldwide, but there’s much more to Superfest than just watching the films. We deliberately choose to limit our festival to a weekend so that it can serve as a more unified cultural event. From our hilarious emcee Nina G (the world’s best female, stuttering comedian) to our rich panels with filmmakers to our event party, Superfest allows our attendees to come together as a community to celebrate how disability enriches the arts. This year is the 30th anniversary of our festival, so we’re working even harder to make this our best year yet.

MT: What are the qualifications for the selected films?

EMB: Most importantly, we seek films that avoid the common but problematic tropes of disability. For example, we’re looking for films that neither patronize nor deify people with disabilities, that avoid stereotypes to go beyond disabled people as victims or villains. We get a lot of submissions that the disability community calls “inspiration porn.” These films look at the stories of individual disabled people while they do things like climbing Mt Everest or biking across continents to show what they can do in spite of their disabilities, never addressing the discrimination people with disabilities face nor questioning why a disabled person should have to do such herculean tasks in order to prove their social worth. Those get rejected real fast.

MT: Do you think that some films really don’t get a fair shake from film festivals? And if so, why?

EMB: It depends on the festival of course, but some prioritize high standards for technical quality and production, which hurts some really great (but radical and incredibly low-budget) stories from getting screened. While we of course want films that are executed with high quality, a film with a really great message made on a shoestring budget can make it into Superfest.

MT: What motivates you and your team to do this festival?

EMB: Personally, I’m grew up with a disabled mother so I witnessed how our society treats people with disabilities. I believe that disability need not be seen as tragedy nor pity, and feel that having a disabled mother transformed me for the better. This upbringing motivates my efforts to showcase how disabled people bring creativity and expertise that enriches our world.

The directors of the festival, Catherine Kudlick, Director of the Longmore Institute on Disability, and Bryan Bashin, CEO of the SF LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, are both disabled people themselves who are motivated to participate in Superfest because of the festival’s rich history among Bay Area disability groups and long-standing record of promoting the rights and interests of disabled people. All of our judges are disabled people, so we proudly support the disability rights slogan “Nothing About Us, Without Us” through out festival’s grassroots approach.

MT: How has the festival changed since its inception?

EMB: After its developmental years in Los Angeles, Superfest was transferred to the Bay Area in 1998. Operated as a project of Culture! Disability! Talent! (CDT), annual film festivals were held in Berkeley 1998-2011. In 2012, CDT began to search for new leaders with the vision, talent and energy to take Superfest to the next level. They found Catherine Kudlick and Bryan Bashin. Because the festival is now connected two organizations, we have a stronger infrastructure to put on a bigger festival and to promote it more widely. In addition, we’re now making Superfest a model of accessibility. All films screen with audio description and captioning, our spaces are wheelchair accessible, and ASL interpreters are always present.

MT: Where do you see the festival by 2020?

EMB: Since the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability and the SF LightHouse for the Blind and Visually impaired took over the festival in 2012, we’ve sold out every single one of our screenings. By 2020, we want to maintain the feeling of community that we’ve achieved in our past three festivals but we want to be able to accommodate an even larger audience so that no one will have to miss out. This would also allow us to make new partnerships and broaden the festival’s reach to groups that might not be thinking about disability in the arts (but would benefit from doing so – veterans are a good example of this).

MT: What film have you seen the most times in your life?

EMB: Well my real answer would probably be something that I watched repeatedly as a kid like The Labyrinth. But if you’ll allow me to connect it to Superfest: in 2014, we screened a short film called “The Interviewer” and since, I’ve probably watched it over 20 times. Many colleagues and friends have spread the word about how great it is and keep requesting that I play it for others. And honestly, I still laugh in earnest every time I see it – that’s how good it is.

MT: In one sentence, what makes a great film?

EMB: A great film takes something ordinary but helps me think about it an entirely new way, or it takes something extraordinary and yet allows me to connect with it.

MT: How is the film scene in your city?

EMB: So, so, so good. San Francisco is a hard place to live with the high cost of rent, but man, the support for diverse culture and arts here is pretty phenomenal. That being said, I’m a mom of two young kids, so I don’t take full advantage of it.


Growing up with a disabled mother, Emily Smith Beitiks witnessed how our society treats people with disabilities. She believes that disability need not be seen as tragedy or pity, and feels that having a disabled mother transformed her for the better. Beitiks received a PhD in American Studies at the University of Minnesota in April 2012. In her current position as Associate Director of the Paul Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University, she continues her work as a scholar and advocate of disability to showcase how disabled people bring unique value that can benefit us all. She is the coordinator of Superfest: International Disability Film Festival.

Interviewer Matthew Toffolo is currently the CEO of the WILDsound FEEDBACK Film & Writing Festival. The festival that showcases 10-20 screenplay and story readings performed by professional actors every month. And the FEEDBACK Monthly Festival held in downtown Toronto on the last Thursday of every single month. Go to for more information and to submit your work to the festival.


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