By Hugo Greenhalgh
LONDON, Sept 10 (Openly) - After using a time-travelling bedroom closet to tackle the taboo of self-harm, an acclaimed British filmmaking duo shine a light on sexuality among disabled teens in their latest project.
The short film "S.A.M.", which has its British premiere at the Iris Prize LGBT+ Film Festival in Wales in October, tells the story of a budding love affair between two boys, both called Sam, one of whom has Down's syndrome.
The award-winning writing and directing team, Neil Ely, 38, and Lloyd Eyre-Morgan, 32, said they were keen to make a film about the rarely discussed topic as both minorities are under-represented in British film and television.
"You're still seeing actors portraying people with disabilities that don't have a disability," said Eyre-Morgan, adding they did not ask the sexuality of their two lead actors.
"Yet there are so many brilliant actors out there that do have a disability and they're not getting a look in."
One of the Sams is 19-year-old George Webster, who is an actor, dancer and student with Down's Syndrome, as well as an ambassador for Mencap, a charity that supports people with learning disabilities.
"We kind of felt there was a voice that wasn't being heard," Ely told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a joint interview.
"It was our responsibility to use our small platform to get that message out there."
Statistics on LGBT+ disabled people in Britain are scarce but about 14 million Britons are disabled and almost 7% are non-heterosexual, government data shows, suggesting an LGBT+ disabled community of nearly 1 million people.
Films are gradually becoming more inclusive, with LGBT+ characters in a record 19% of 118 major studio releases in 2019, according to American LGBT+ media monitor GLAAD - but only one film featured a character with a disability.
But filmmaking and the acting profession often remain "closed doors" for disabled and LGBT+ people, Eyre-Morgan said.
"For us, it's very important to bring people into the film industry that maybe don't have the opportunities to get involved," he said.
Eyre-Morgan and Ely first met in 2012 at "Queer as Fringe", a collection of 15-minute LGBT+ plays staged in the northern English city of Manchester - where "S.A.M." was more recently shot on a shoe-string budget.
"We really hit it off," Ely said. "And we very quickly established that we are passionate about telling the same stories."
The stories so far have included a string of short films "predominantly based on queer characters", Ely said, including the award-winning 2016 short "Closets", which was shown in schools and later adapted into a musical.
"Closets" centres around Henry, 16, who in 1986 is struggling with his sexuality and homophobic bullying. He goes inside his closet and time travels to 2016 where he meets Ben, 16, living in his bedroom and dealing with similar issues.
Eyre-Morgan and Ely are not worried about being pigeonholed as LGBT+ directors.
"A friend of mine said to me, 'Why do you always watch gay films?' and I said to him, 'Why do you always watch straight films?'" Ely said.
"The majority of things we see are about straight, white people and I just enjoy telling queer stories."
Their eyes are firmly on expanding "S.A.M." into a feature-length film, despite the challenges posed by the new coronavirus pandemic, which led to the cancellation of the film's initial premiere in London in March, with other festivals going online.
Ultimately, both directors hope "S.A.M." will kickstart a discussion around issues of sexuality and disability.
"Hopefully, this film will show that people with disabilities can have relationships," Eyre-Morgan said.
"They can love, they do have a sexuality – that's what we wanted to do with the film."
(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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