More Neuro-Diversity on Screen
In a week where Shortland Street has introduced a character played by an actor with Down Syndrome, Wellington film-maker April Phillips is near completion of her latest short film which stars an actor with the same condition in a leading role.
Phillips would dearly love to see a greater reflection of society’s neuro-diversity on screen and hopes that Shortland Street will make their new character of “Winston” (played by local performer Jacob Dombroski) a regular role in the series.
“We live in an incredibly diverse world which makes society interesting and colourful. We’re getting better at mirroring that diversity on screen, but there’s still a long way to go when it comes to casting actors who have physical or neurological differences.”
Phillips’ fifth film, The Last Man on Earth is a Sci-Fi thriller with a personal statement about the worth of people with disabilities. The story is set in the aftermath of a global epidemic that virtually wipes out mankind and that was caused by a vaccine designed to eradicate birth defects. Survivor Annie (played by actress Greer Phillips) learns the hard way that a person’s worth is not determined by their looks or abilities, but rather their character and actions. “The film also stars Duncan Armstrong, a very busy and experienced Wellington dancer, drummer and actor who also happens to have Down Syndrome. He’s a great example of not allowing his condition or society’s negative stereotypes to define him or limit him”, says Phillips.
Phillips herself is mum to a very precious 8 year old daughter who has severely challenging physical and neurological conditions. A few years ago she read that UK Independent Party member Geoffrey Clark had posted his opinion that the government should “consider compulsory abortion when the foetus is detected as having Downs, spina bifida or similar syndrome which, if it is born, will render the child a burden on the state as well as on the family”. This extreme opinion incensed Phillips but also made her realise that this type of attitude arises from ignorance. She wanted her next film project to be more than entertainment; it became a passion project to inspire awareness and positivity.
“Duncan himself is a wonderful and very obvious contradiction to the negative message pregnant women receive about Down Syndrome. He’s fiercely independent, extremely talented, and in terms of his career he’s as energetic and focused as any other professional performer I’ve ever worked with. He even did his own stunt (under the direction of acclaimed Stunt Co-ordinator, Rodney Cook). The only limits he has in life are those imposed on him by other people’s scepticism”.
Phillips says “In the film, Duncan’s character turns out to be the hero. The person whose moral character illustrates that a human’s worth should not be determined by ability – let’s face it, you can be fully able (mentally and physically) and still be a total plonker, as evidenced by way too many heads of global super powers right now”.
“The Last Man on Earth” was shot at Avalon Film & Television Studios and is in the final stages of post production. It will screen on the film festival circuit before being publicly viewable.
Phillips, who has garnered numerous awards and international film festival screenings for her previous works will shortly begin development on a feature film project. “Actors with disabilities will be very welcome to audition for all roles. I’m looking forward to the day when we see more actors with differences playing characters on screen that aren’t defined by a medical condition or there to just represent a condition. They’ll be playing the “Doctor” or the “Receptionist” or the “Café Owner” who just happens to be in a wheelchair”.