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  • Writer's pictureApocalyptic Thanksgiving

The film CODE OF FREAKS screened at this year’s Reel Abilities Film Festival of Los Angeles. Yes, the title uses the word “FREAKS” to refer to those with disabilities even though it’s a documentary about Hollywood’s history of representing people with disabilities in film. It’s a tongue and cheek call back to the 1932 film FREAKS. I believe the documentary asks: Why not immediately embrace the word and get it out of the way? A person interviewed said near the beginning of the film. This let the film boldly dive in and challenge filmmakers to raise the standards of storytelling when including people with disabilities instead of the tropes it usually uses.

The independent documentary film panel includes several hosts with different types of disabilities. They all expressed their wishes and desires on how best to portray people like them. They all agreed that even though Hollywood has made great strides towards inclusions, there are still many easy tropes to avoid. When they mean disabilities, mean those disabilities that are seen and unseen. Disabilities encompasses a wide variety of people: blind, deaf, cerebral palsy, wheelchair enabled, Autism, Down Syndrome, mental illness, disfigurement, and little people just to name a few.


FREAKS, as one host points out, is one of Hollywood’s oldest films yet it has the largest cast of people with disabilities. The movie FREAKS surrounds the 'normal' person with a myriad of people with different disabilities to make her feel like the outcast. Early in Hollywood, many movies portrayed people with disabilities as a sideshow circus. The audience could then stare at them out of curiosity or horror instead of like human beings. Great examples of this are THE HUNCH BACK OF NOTRE DAME or THE ELEPHANT MAN.

One host surprisingly advocates for more comedy, not less. He appreciates comedy instead of feel-good movies because it seems more authentic to him. He enjoyed the Farrelly Brothers’ films’ fearlessness to include many people with disabilities in many humorous ways. Part of being a human being is being able to laugh at oneself. He refers to the scene of SOMETHING ABOUT MARY where the quadriplegic drops his keys and comedically attempts to pick them up himself to learn to be self-sufficient. The interviewee professes that if you ever watch him drop his own keys on the floor, you would think his attempts to pick it up is a comedy as well. In another panel at the Reel Abilities Film Festival of Los Angeles, one host delineated the comedic bounds in his terms. There is room for comedy for people with disabilities. It’s when you’re partaking in a joke as opposed to being the butt of the joke. He also quipped that little people do not have magical powers or a pot of gold.

One wish was to watch two people with disabilities make love. The reason is that the usual cliche is two persons, one with a disability and one without. There are a few reasons this occurs. They are monetarily compensated, performing it out of curiosity or even worse is doing it out of pity. The film THE SESSIONS (by Ben Lewin) is an uncomfortable yet celebratory journey about a man living in an iron lung, expressing his sexuality for the first time. We are propelled into a world that we have never experienced or imagined. It's about a quadriplegic who hires a sex therapist to explore his sexuality as well as lose his virginity. They never fall in love but the lead character is somehow changed.

Another movie that refers to love making is CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, where a regular man and a deaf woman make love. In Shoshannah Stern’s TV Show, THIS CLOSE, TWO deaf people write and star in the show. This is the first time where there are two dear persons as the lead in a TV Show as well as in a movie.

Another trope is where the person with disabilities is introduced into a family or community. S/he changes everyone’s life, yet remains unchanged and institutionalized. Their wants and desires are over simplified and saying that returning to the institution is what is best for them. Everyone “agrees” for it’s believed that the person with a disability doesn’t have the free will to live their best life outside of it. You could even say that this is Hollywood’s way of affirming those either not wanting to take care or unable to take care of people with disabilities. An example of this is RAIN MAN.

As care providers for people with special needs in a more homelike setting, we know it’s not always possible for people to take care of their relatives with special needs. But still we also don’t think that locking people away in institutions is good. That’s why we support the board and care model like the ones we work for, because it gives the people with special needs a homelike setting to feel more a part of the community. In fact, some guys in our care really enjoyed seeing films at the Reel Abilities Film Festival for the last two years. Let’s get back to CODE OF FREAKS.


These are high standards in which to create stories. How many perfect movies has Hollywood made humanizing people with autism or another form of disability? None, the panel of hosts conclude.

In some ways it challenges me – Richard- as a filmmaker to write and produce better stories. MY APOCALYPTIC THANKSGIVING is inspired by my life along with the many of special needs adults that I take care of. I am the characters of Frank and Kim. Marcus is the embodiment of several of the clients’ stories. What I have personally observed is that their primal instinct is to connect with their family. This desire is universal especially if we are not fully accepted by our family or community. Many of these clients were abandoned early in life and institutionalized. They never had a family. We are the closest ‘family’ they will ever have is their group home and board and care “family.”


are the strongest aspect that sets MY APOCALYPTIC THANKSGIVING apart from many tropes of people with autism and special needs. The most unique aspect is that it strives for self-determination for people with special needs and what can go wrong with this and what can go right. Self-determination is the idea that it’s a God given right sprung from the belief like the right to pursuit of happiness endowed by our creator. They may not always make the wisest choices, but they are allowed to make choices for themselves. As pointed out in our film, they have the right to take medication or not. They also have the right to wear what they want, hang out with whomever they choose to and even not have a lobotomy. I know that the lobotomy part sounds funny except some people with special needs used to not have a choice. There are also specific cases of self-harm and illegal activities where a court and panel can partake in those choices. It’s that we can’t intervene until they prove to be a danger to themselves or others.

As a Filipino writer, I understand the story telling challenges. Let’s strive better to avoid easy tropes or cliches and portray people more depth and humanize these characters with disabilities. For me, this film was a love letter to the special needs and their families of the caregiver community. People are meant to see that there are more to people with special needs and/or disabilities beyond the overused tropes discussed in the CODE OF FREAKS.

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  • Writer's pictureApocalyptic Thanksgiving

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

Now that the dust is settling, what should we do now?

The George Floyd protests and riots are dying down, emotions are still running high. Something must change. But the change must start within us. The first step is to our minds. We must COME TOGETHER in order to have honest conversations. And we need to listen with empathy as well as reach out to others who are not in agreement. This combination will help us to open our eyes to truly see others’ plights. Movies are a great way to do that.

Here are three movies that encourage emotional journeys through laughter and relationships in the midst of the chaotic riots. The first movie is about the LA Riots of ’92 called COME TOGETHER. Charles B Unger wrote, produced and directed COME TOGETHER. His name may sound familiar because he also directed MY APOCALYPTIC THANKSGIVING.


If we as a society can only open up, we can Come Together.

Charlie’s movie COME TOGETHER follows several diverse college students in a high-pressure situation during the LA Riots of ‘92. The movie GOOK charms us into the household andhe business of a Korean family with deep relationships in the Black Community. LET IT FALL walks us through the LA Riots step-by-step. As a documentary, its insight into the police’s harmful tactics gives a societal timeline that lead to the tumultuous LA riots of ‘92. 

COME TOGETHER – Charlie wrote and directed this film based on his real-life experiences at the University of Southern California (USC) while he was a student there. USC is situated in South Central Los Angeles, which was close to the epicenter of the riots. He sheltered at a friend’s house when USC evacuated students. They were all glued to the television set as they watched in horror as their city burned.

Don’t be fooled by the overt sexiness of COME TOGETHER. The film is an allegory of college students' hopes and dreams expressed through art and music trying to change the world. This also explores the deeper interpersonal and interracial relationships of college students coping with the stress of being in post LA Riots during 1992. They also reveal their deep insecurities through tantrums and immature behaviors to help them to get to what was really bothering them.


Gook - During a Sundance Interview, Ava DuVarney marveled at the opening shot of a young Black girl dancing against the backdrop of a burning building. Ava thought highly of the film. 

GOOK is a heartwarming yet intense drama that unveils the life of two Korean brothers during the Riots of ‘92. They ran a family shoe store and formed an unlikely and playful relationship with a young black girl. Justin Chon wrote, directed and starred in this film that won the Audience Award at the Sundance film festival. The Korean brother’s shoe store is in Gardena city which is right next to Compton.

When the riots erupted in South Central LA, it spread like wildfire to other parts of Los Angeles County. Unfortunately, their lives and livelihoods were threatened when the city’s emotions ran high and a race war ignited in their neighborhood. Everyone quickly turned on one another and allies were divided along racial lines. In the middle were the brothers and young black girl and the little shoe store. It’s as if they were stranded in a lifeboat in the middle of an oil spill that was on fire. This is where they will take their last stance together. 

There’s my truth. There’s your truth. Then there’s THE TRUTH. - John Ridley.

The LA riots rings close to my heart. My parents were shop owners in LA at the time. Being Asian business owners, at that moment, we felt like we had a target on our backs. We watched in horror as each city building in the near distance turned into smoke and flame. This smoke and flame approached closer and closer like a train of vengeance heading our way. I remember feeling so helpless. My Dad muttered and paced back and forth on whether to board up or not. He decided to grab the cash. I got my boombox. We left our glass front store and said our prayers. Then we drove home in silence. Luckily, our store was spared, but many were not.

Filmmaker John Ridley wrote and directed the documentary LET IT FALL. It gives an in-depth look at political seeds of unrest and the cultural tensions that erupted into a week-long emotional gut punch that notoriously became the LA Riots. He carefully interviews all the players: Koreans, Blacks, Police Officers, News Reporters and residents. All still are shaken when they recall their stories. 

As part of their interviews, some police officers explain the different types of chokeholds. They didn’t know it affected people differently who were high on drugs. This film also explores South Central Los Angeles’ history using stock footage from networks, personal footage and oral history from many of the participants and observers. John follows along racial historical truth starting from the birth of the street gangs and LA’s merciless treatment of many Blacks. That event soon disappeared into the history pages.

The next generation of Angelenos lost their innocence the moment the video of Rodney King was released and exposed the corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department in addition to the daily frustrations of many Black residents at the time. John follows the cause and effect that led to the injustices that turned into the perfect storm of what was the LA Riots of ’92.


How can we prevent another LA Riots? 

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  • Writer's pictureApocalyptic Thanksgiving

On film and TV (Try saying that 3x fast)

This year, we’ve seen a tremendous surge in diversity in film and TV. Nothing like anyone I could’ve imagined - Special Needs, Asian in leads and the undead rising up. Oh my.

Holly and I were very fortunate to attend even a new film festival, Reel Abilities at Universal City Walk sponsored by AMC. It’s the Los Angeles chapter of Reel Abilities, a festival dedicated to those with disabilities.Congrats to Michael Dougherty and all the sponsors. Special Guest RJ Mitt from BREAKING BAD as well as other working actors with a disability appeared in a guest panel to discuss and educate everyone about the movement for more diversity on film and TV.

There was a delightful treasure trove of films such as PEANUT BUTTER FALCON from the SXSW Film Festival

A kid with Down Syndrome, Zak Gottsagen, teams up with a drifter, Shia LaBeouf. They go on an adventure to a Wrestling Camp. This sounds eerily similar to my movie, MY APOCALYPTIC THANKSGIVING

Or even ones that challenged the narrative and experiment and an actor with a disability as a romantic lead, FREAKS.

There were also some very talented up and coming filmmakers from the Easter Seals Disability Challenge

This provided a special education about humanization for those with disabilities.

Here are some other great movies that cinephiles should definitely check out.

"Last year, I almost died… ever since then I’ve been scared to do anything.” Emma Clark voices over the trailer. That’s all I need to hear. I can totally relate to this movie. Anyone who’s survived a serious car crash or a serious illness, can relate to this movie.

Having almost died this year, this movie deeply moved me. If I could choose a way out,I would have loved to a large banquet to stuff myself surrounded by loved ones. What’s it like to be so close to death? One of my last regretful thoughts was, “I shouldn’t have had an extra helping of French Toast at the buffet.”

ATYPICAL and the GOOD DOCTOR are tv shows where someone with autism is the lead. I had pitched similar ideas, but was always advised that no one wants to watch a special needs adult as the main character. Go figure. More voices, more original stories can be told if people take a chance.


the Undead rise again in the middle of the apocalypse. Time to kick ass and make people laugh. Comedy, action, and zombies.

We were blessed to attend a Q&A with triple threat writer, director and actor, Shoshana Stern

Dina is an American documentary film directed by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, about Dina Buno and Scott Levin, both on the autism spectrum, getting married.

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