Genevieve Clay- Smith was an 18-year-old student when she landed her first filmmaking job, creating a documentary for a Down syndrome charity. She spent a year following people with the condition and their families as they worked with members of the community to achieve their goals, from living independently to getting a job in the city which required a suit and tie.
Then came Gerard O’Dwyer, who wanted to be an actor. “That was a whole different kettle of fish,” Clay-Smith says. “It’s difficult enough for someone without a disability. If you look at the representation of people with disabilities in film and television, it’s shocking.”
When the pair met, O’Dwyer recited a Shakespeare soliloquy – the entire balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet – and Clay- Smith was blown away by his talent. “As I was leaving I felt it was such an injustice,” she says. “Nobody was even writing roles for people with disabilities. I thought: ‘How’s he going to get an agent? How’s the world going to see his talent?’ Then I thought: ‘Why don’t I make a film?’”
So she did. Be My Brother – about a man with Down syndrome who befriends a woman at a bus stop – won the TropFest short film festival in 2009. Clay-Smith then partnered with Sydney Community College to teach filmmaking workshops for people with disabilities, and started Bus Stop Films, which has expanded to include others from marginalised backgrounds, including refugees and people with mental health issues.
Be My Brother and another film O’Dwyer starred in, The Interviewer, screened at the United Nations and over the past decade Clay-Smith has seen many students achieve success. Two worked on a television commercial for the Special Olympics, while a Sudanese refugee who starred in another film, I Am Emmanuel, worked on Angelina Jolie’s feature film Unbroken. Another gained employment with leading camera rental supplier Panavision.
“People think getting a person with a disability involved might be too hard or slow things down, but it doesn’t at all,” Clay-Smith says. “We’re happy to see how the film industry is starting to embrace change. We’re not all able-bodied Anglo Saxons, so it’s great to see diversity on screen because it accurately represents the people in the world.
“I have often wondered what’s it like being from another country and coming here and watching TV and never seeing someone like them on television. I think it’s really empowering when people see themselves on screen.”
Bus Stop Films forges partnerships with established production companies as part of its mission to create an inclusive film industry. The volunteer-run not-for-profit organisation has recently become involved in an initiative with Screen Australia, the government funding body, to help people with disabilities enter into paid internships.
Clay-Smith has also created a curriculum with the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, where she studied her masters degree, and hopes to see the concept expand to other parts of the country.
“Sustainability is the big goal,” she says. “It’s about ensuring that more people can do this.”