ReelAbilities Film Festival Brings Disabilities Into the Spotlight


ReelAbilties online poster

By Roman Gerus

The audience was submerged in an ocean of tears during “Ocean Heaven,” a 2011 Chinese movie starring Jet Li, which played at the “ReelAbilities” film festival at the STEM auditorium at Kean.

The movie’s emotional response reflected the real-life emotions and stories behind the message of this festival in “promoting awareness and appreciation of the lives, stories and artistic expressions of people with different disabilities.”

The festival, which ended on Nov. 20, was Kean’s second annual “ReelAbilties” film festival. The festival was part of a statewide event, which included Kean’s Ocean County campus.

The first festival, however, took place at the JCC in Manhattan in 2007, where it moved audiences and inspired people to think about people with disabilities more thoughtfully and encourage others to do the same.

Millie Gonzalez was the director of the festival. She has been a University Relations specialist for the past 10 years and is a Kean alumnus. Her enthusiasm and devotion for the festival was as personal and touching as the festival itself. In an email interview, Gonzalez expressed her feelings about the festival and the films and people involved.

“As a person with a disability, I attended the ReelAbilities New York festival with one of my friends since it began in 2007. Each time I left a screening, I would think ‘that’s my new favorite film,’” said Gonzalez.

Gonzalez along with Kean University, the New York committee and other individuals in New Jersey turned the dream of a larger festival into reality with a five-day festival last spring at Kean and in other cities in New Jersey. The films are chosen after a call for submissions and a review by a film selection committee that works out of New York City. Gonzalez knew the importance of promoting this festival.

“I recognized the potential for educating and increasing awareness through films that address various disabilities and themes that speak to the diversity of our campus community, as well as to the wide range of academic disciplines across the university,” said Gonzalez.

The Kean student community also got personally involved with the festival this year with the surprise song and dance performance by Kean students Amara Riccio and Maria Elena Martino. Riccio is a recreational therapy major at Kean and the “creator, entertainer and public speaker” of, a website and organization devoted to “picking up” people who are struggling with their disabilities.

Riccio was originally pursuing a career in dance and gymnastics, but her life changed when she was struck by a car in 2008, leaving her with a Traumatic Brain Injury, Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

She did not let her new disabilities bring her down, however, and her tremendous will and strength was evident in her dance performance accompanied by the singing of her equally as talented friend and head volunteer Martino, who is an occupational therapy major at Kean.

Their song and dance number, “Unconditional Loved,” portrayed the unconditional love that everyone must have for each other, disabled or not, and to not judge people simply based on their outward appearance. “I do it for my brothers, my friends and disabled people everywhere,” said Riccio.

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