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Award-winning Irish film starring cast who have intellectual disabilities hopes to go global

Sanctuary was initially a theatre production – now it has made its way to the big screen.


Source: Len Collin/Vimeo

AN IRISH FILM starring nine young actors who have intellectual disabilities is hoping to go global and be shown at international film festivals.

Sanctuary, directed by Len Collins, is an adaptation of the theatre play of the same name by Christian O’Reilly about a group of young people with intellectual disabilities who go on a day trip to Galway. Two of the gang are a couple, and plan some alone time in a local hotel.

The main cast members are Kieran Coppinger, Charlene Kelly, Michael Hayes, Emer Macken, Paul Connolly, Frank Butcher, Patrick Becker, Jennifer Cox and Valerie Egan.

The film was premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh earlier this month, where it won the Best Irish First Feature award.

Collins said that they are in talks with a number of distributors, which they hope will lead to Sanctuary being shown at festivals. Earlier this week, he put out an appeal on the film’s Facebook page asking people to like the page and spread the word about the film.

They have been building up a solid fanbase on Facebook, and are hoping that as the likes rack up, the international interest will also grow.

Disability issues

One of the things that initially concerned the makers of Sanctuary was that people might assume that it was a “worthy” film, rather than an entertaining one.

“It’s a great funny script but it’s not always going to attract people when you talk about disability,” said Collins. “That’s our issue that we have to deal with, really.”

“As far as I am aware, it is the first film to use actors with intellectual disabilities in this way,” he added.

It’s an ensemble cast and they are playing versions of themselves in many respects. It’s us entering their world as opposed to [how] films before took a character with intellectual disability and put them into our world.

He name-checks films like Forrest Gump and Rainman, which notably also did not star actors with an intellectual disability. The idea of non-disabled actors playing people with intellectual or physical disabilities is something that garners much discussion, particularly in the disabled community.

kieran Source: Vimeo

“While we may marvel at the performance of Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot or Eddie Redmayne in Theory of Everything, you do think to yourself how would that work if it was someone with a disability who did play that role? Why not, is the question,” said Collins.

“Obviously it depends on the script and the production anyway but it’s something I would like to see an end to that kind of thing essentially because when you watch Sanctuary, you are watching very, very different performances. Someone like Kieran Coppinger, he is just a joy to work with as an actor. He gives you all he can give you and never complains. On set it was just a wonderful atmosphere.”

He noted that while there are some well-known actors on the autistic spectrum – like Paddy Considine, who was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 36 – it is far more unusual to see someone like Coppinger, who has Down syndrome, on screen. It’s even more unusual to see an entire cast of people with different intellectual disabilities starring in a film that explores their own lives.

In an era where people are being more aware of diversity and how it is reflected in the culture we consume, Sanctuary is showing that there should be no barriers to the types of people who are shown on screen.

“Because it’s based on their stories because it’s based on their personalities it really is a film that you can go and laugh at and you’re laughing with the guys, you’re not laughing against them, and that’s the joy of it,” said Collins.

“We are all very proud of the vote we had on equality and it’s great that Ireland is known as a nation for its tolerance, [but] there is still a long way to go,” said Collins. He believes that “the more diverse we get the less ignorance and intolerance we can have in society”.

“I do hope it will change people’s attitude,” said Collins of the film. Disability “is quite often a hidden problem”, he added.

Even to actually get to the cinema to watch Sanctuary, would-be audience members might run into problems or barriers. “We need more ramps to get people into cinemas and into restaurants and into other places… Which is happening and it’s certainly a lot better than it was,” said Collins.

Blogs like Legless in Dublin, written by wheelchair user Louise Bruton, are part of the movement in Ireland to highlight the issues – as well as positive changes – around accessibility in Ireland.

Collins pointed out that not everyone who is differently abled can advocate for themselves.

“If you have an intellectual disability you are less likely to canvas yourself for those changes which is why this film, I think, is so important,” he said. He added that people might have a limited impression of how a person with an intellectual disability lives their life, so this film can help to change this narrative.

 I think the great thing about society now is people can dream about what they want to do and nothing should stop them really; nothing should stop them going for their dreams. It doesn’t mean they will achieve it but nothing should stop them going for this dream.

Diversity and film

The need for diversity includes racial and gender diversity. Collins reflected back to his early days as an actor, when he got to know a certain Idris Elba. Elba had been “finding it very difficult to get work” and finding it hard to get roles for Afro Caribbean actors, said Collins.

“In England at the time there were very few [Afro Caribbean] actors who could get work and very few parts written for them,” he said. But today, while the issue of diversity is far from settled in the film world, Elba is one of the UK’s biggest stars.

Collins hopes something similar will happen regarding actors with intellectual disabilities. “I think Kieran could walk into Fair City or Red Rock or any of those shows and do a great job,” he said, adding that the same is true of any of the cast.

13698138_1192580474119895_1068105134173912661_o Kieran Coppinger (left) Source: Facebook

“The atmosphere was brilliant”

Kieran Coppinger is one of the stars of the film. “It was great doing the film,” he said. “It was little different, but it was something I hadn’t done before. [It involved] getting up really early some mornings.”

The experience of seeing their film at the Galway Film Fleadh “was really great”, said Coppinger, who has Down syndrome. “The atmosphere there was pretty brilliant… getting the award was something really rewarding.”

The process of working on the film was intense. “We worked basically the day through the evening time,” said Coppinger. “I enjoy acting and I think it’s fun. I hope to do more films.”

He’s been part of the Blue Teapot theatre company for nine years. “We do get along very well – it’s really great to work there,” he said of his fellow actors.

When it comes to his craft, his favourite actor is Will Smith – because he’s “a bit like me really” – and his favourite film is Rocky because “he’s a nice guy, a family guy and he just likes to do what he does”.

He hopes the film gets distributed worldwide.

Hopefully they will enjoy it like people here in Galway did and hopefully [it will] go a bit further afield.

Starring in a film with other people who have intellectual disabilities was “something I wanted to do and it’s really great,” said Coppinger.

James Hickey, Chief Executive, Bord Scannán na hÉireann/the Irish Film Board, said the board was very happy to see Sanctuary pick up the Best First Film Award at the Galway Film Fleadh earlier this month.

“It’s a very brave film and a compelling love story with excellent performances from all involved,” said Hickey.

We believe it is important to support a wide diversity of voices through the medium of film and Sanctuary is a testament to talent shining through.

Read: Brooklyn and Room made millions at the box office – but Irish filmmakers need more money>

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