BOSTON – Chris Hoeh, a beloved and trailblazing Jamaica Plain educator who became paralyzed after a skiing accident, continues to inspire as a leading local and national champion for those with disabilities and spinal cord injuries.
Sylvia Bowersox is a U.S. Army veteran whose three tours in Iraq as a press officer left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, was paired with a service dog that has helped her reemerge from the devastation that upturned her daily life.
A trio of young Kenyans born with disabling health conditions bucked the stigma of being seen as cursed and set out to climb the heights of Mount Kilimanjaro.
These are among the people whose compelling, unlikely stories are told on film at ReelAbilities, an international film festival presented locally by the Boston Jewish Film Festival that runs from March 22 through April 2 at locations around Greater Boston. Admission is free, but registration is required.
This year’s festival, the ninth, is its largest, boasting 24 films across 12 screening events. It also includes many featured guests and panel discussions.
“To Be of Service,” a feature documentary by Josh Aronson about Bowersox and other war veterans suffering from PTSD who are paired with service dogs, will be shown on Wednesday, March 25, at Showcase Cinemas de Lux Revere. Bowersox will be on hand with her service dog, Timothy, for a post-film discussion.
Founded in 2007 by the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, ReelAbilities now has festivals in cities across the country and internationally. Its curated selection of award-winning films offers a rare window on the resilience, ingenuity, and courage of ordinary people making extraordinary strides to live their lives to the fullest – almost always against the odds.
Among its Boston sponsors is the Ruderman Family Foundation and the J.E. & Z.B. Butler Foundation.
Through films, ReelAbilities takes a creative path to bring visibility and awareness of people living with disabilities, according to Katka Reszke, who was chosen to direct Boston’s festival and is responsible for local programming.
Reszke, who is Polish and lives in the Boston area, is a multidisciplined and multitalented author and documentary filmmaker whose work focuses on Jewish as well as LGBTQ themes.
The global breadth of the films is impressive, said Reszke, who leads the local film selection process from among those selected and offered by the New York-based ReelAbilities organization.
Among others, she pointed to “Once Upon a Boy,” a film by Uri Levi that reveals the challenges faced by an Israeli family raising three children, one of whom has cerebral palsy. The film, screening on March 31 at the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Boston in Newton, won a 2019 Ophir Award, Israel’s most prestigious film award.
Local filmmakers in this year’s festival include Alex Freeman, director of “The Last Straw,” and Sandra Jaffe, director of “Jon Sarkin: I Am What I Am.” Both screen at the festival’s International Shorts Block on Sunday, March 29, at the West Newton Cinema.
Also local is Alice Markowitz, director of “Wheels of Justice,” among the short films that traces the story of Hoeh, the elementary school teacher injured in a ski accident. Before his accident, three years ago, Hoeh, who has a lifelong passion for education and social justice, achieved national recognition as the elementary social studies teacher of the year with the teaching tolerance award from the Southern Poverty Law Center. Today, he continues to raise his voice on behalf of those living with disabilities.
Notably, the films are also a platform for performers with physical and mental challenges.
“We are very committed to authentic presentation,” Reszke said, noting that actors who portray people with disabilities are themselves living with disability.
Issues of mental health are also front and center, including “Bedlam,” showing on Thursday, March 26, at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The films are secular, but many are made by Jewish filmmakers and over the years, many have featured Jewish subjects.
For more information, the film schedule, and to register to see a film, visit bjff.org.