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Julien Richard-Thomson, disabled director: a rare bird?

Directors with disabilities? It’s almost fictional. Suffering from Tourette’s syndrome, Julien Richard-Thomson talks about the obstacles that have stood between him and his passion for cinema. Stock !

Handicap.fr: What impact has Tourette syndrome had on your career as a director? The brakes, the opportunities perhaps…?
Julien Richard-Thomson: Opportunities ? The question is quickly answered: none. To be honest, I didn’t have the career I would have liked, I always wanted to make cinema films and, for now, none of my feature films have been released in theaters. This ” failure is due to several parameters. I have always been considered an outcast. Originally from Avignon, I landed in Paris in the 1990s, where I knew absolutely no one. Complicated when you have a job that works 99% thanks to the network… This aspect of the provincial who arrives in the Capital, makes films independently, ” artisanal likes imaginary cinema, the somewhat absurd black humor of Monty Python, at the time, it was quite frowned upon. Today, mentalities seem to have evolved on this point. But my handicap was obviously my worst obstacle. A bit of a handicap weird ” in addition…

H.fr: This neuropsychiatric disease is characterized by involuntary, sudden tics, resulting in movements or vocalizations. Has it earned you any disparaging thoughts?
JRT: Of course, it was made clear to me that my disability was a risk. Sometimes people wonder if we’re on drugs or crazy, if we’re not going to have a hysterical reaction, freak out or roll on the ground during a shoot… I was enraged to see how much I could be considered unreliable by simple a priori. I was never told, text message: We don’t sign for your movie because you’re disabled ” but, with equal skills, when millions of euros are at stake, it is clear that producers and investors prefer to bet on a ” valid “particularly because shooting insurance is more expensive for disabled, sick or even seniors.

H.fr: You almost seem to understand this censorship…
JRT: I don’t accept it but, in fact, I try to understand it… Hiring a disabled person can represent an additional cost, especially if there is a need to make filming locations accessible or to set up specific measures such as a French Sign Language translator.

H.fr: Have you always wanted to be a director?
JRT: Yes, I have always been passionate about cinema. It was really my fixed idea. Even if I added a few strings to my bow afterwards since I also worked in communication, journalism, advertising and screenplay, before writing a few books… In short, when I was offered a job , I was going!

H.fr: How did your career in the 7e art begin?
JRT: I am sometimes presented as the pioneer of the ” do it yourself (Editor’s note, a movement that consists of doing things by oneself). I started making short films at 9 years old in super 8, an amateur format and, since then, I have never stopped… In high school, I shot films with my friends thanks to the financing of an association , with very few means and video material which was not at all that of today. Then I did a cinema preparation after the baccalaureate which allowed me to make my first feature films on weekends and during the holidays.

H.fr: What advantages has the Recognition of the status of disabled worker given you?
JRT: For the moment, none. I asked for it about ten years ago to be entitled to training, but the opportunity has not yet arisen. And then I didn’t really need to adapt my workstation… On a shoot, you escape the 6% quota a bit. On the other hand, in another life, when I was a communications director, I had to find an office because my noises bothered me in the open space. Subsequently, I took the reflex to isolate myself so as not to disturb. Besides, my handicap also prevents me from going to the cinema, to the theatre, to a classical music concert or any place where you have to be silent for a long time, or else I have to sit in a little corner, at the very back of the room, so as not to disturb.

H.fr: Some say that you have made more films than Guillaume Canet, Michel Hazanivicius and other big names in cinema. How many do you have under your belt?
JRT: A dozen feature films, mostly shot in my youth, three documentaries and a hundred reports have been broadcast. My fiction films were made with small budgets and often broadcast in a fairly confidential way.

H.fr: How many mention the subject of disability?
JRT: Only one. The documentary that is currently airing on Cinema +No arms no cinema “, also available in replay on My channel. A 1h30 film which deals with the handicap in the history of cinema by evoking in particular great successes like Rainman Where Untouchables. He also talks about the difficulty of people with disabilities to access this sector, through the testimony of actors of small stature, in wheelchairs or even deaf. Finally, it addresses the lack of accessibility to works and highlights the initiatives of associations such as Ciné-ma difference which are trying to change the situation (article in link below).

H.fr: A film, only?
JRT: The subject of disability has interested me recently. I realized that I was handicapped only about ten years ago, when I realized that all my friends worked much more than me and that few of my projects succeeded. But if I evoke the handicap recently, I always treated of marginal characters, of difference. It must be said that this is a difficult subject; two years ago, I had started writing a comedy with a rather dark humor on disability but I censored myself, I was afraid that it would be badly perceived and that it would be taken for mockery . This subject is so heavy, sensitive… Directors are sometimes insulted because people with disabilities and their relatives do not recognize themselves in their film. Even big hits like Outstanding can arouse anger and misunderstanding, so a style like mine, a little more crazy, can you imagine? I will make some people laugh but shock others.

H.fr: Perhaps the subject of your next film?
JRT: Hit ! I’m writing the story of a disabled director who uses a whole bunch of coaches to get a job, and it’s almost worse in the end. We quickly get labels stuck on our backs. However, no one can be reduced to their handicap!

H.fr: It’s funny, you make fun of characters who look like you… Is self-mockery your thing?
JRT: It must ! With me, everyone takes it for their rank: the young, the old, the women, the blacks, the whites, the handicapped… We have to be a bit grating to make people laugh. I have almost two personalities: the citizen, who campaigns for inclusion, constructive, optimistic, and the filmmaker, the writer who likes to practice a dark humor, a little offbeat, even cruel, and highlights the failings of its characters. In my opinion, artistic creation is different from consensual activism. The artist must surprise, even shock, while the politician must gather and manage. Sometimes committed, sometimes ironic, I had to deal with this ambivalence all my life!

H.fr: In May 2019, you created the first Union of Film Professionals with Disabilities (SPCH). With what ambition?
JRT: There are obviously several, but the first is to open up cultural professions to people with disabilities. The representation of disability has been progressing for several years, but very (too?) slowly. Disabled actors are rare, in particular because there are few roles for them; they therefore cannot claim professional status and desert the profession. And there are still just as few disabled people on the film crews, behind the cameras…

H.fr: Production companies are often criticized for entrusting the roles of disabled characters to actors “ valid “. What is your point of view ?
JRT: Honestly, that doesn’t shock me. An actress can play the Queen of England or Napoleon without having been. But the writers need to plan more roles so that actors with visible disabilities can have a chance. And then, it has to go both ways, you also have to give the roles of ” valid to people with disabilities. That’s inclusion, everyone plays a role commensurate with their talent, and only their talent.

H.fr: How to promote access to film professions for people with disabilities?
JRT: It’s an audience that self-censors because it is often prevented, so film schools must seek out passionate and talented people. The SPCH wishes to establish a proactive, non-binding approach. We are not asking for quotas but we are proposing to encourage producers by offering additional subsidies in the event of hiring a disabled worker. In May 2022, I joined the commission set up by the National Cinema Center (CNC), chaired by Sandrine Bonnaire, to promote the professional integration of people with disabilities in the cinema. The institutions are beginning to recognize our fight with this union, things are moving… finally!

H.fr: Other key measures?
JRT: We plead, with the CNC and the regions, for the establishment of an inclusion bonus in film projects but also for the reform of the intermittence of the show for actors or technicians with disabilities. This could in particular pass by a reduction in the number of hours of cachet. In concrete terms, 507 hours of exercise per year are necessary to obtain the status of performing arts worker, we recommend half for holders of an RQTH.

H.fr: Your leitmotif?
JRT: Cinema, and more generally culture, speaks to everyone, about everyone and should be practiced by everyone. The disabled person can not only be a spectator – and even then, it’s already good if he manages to be! -, he must also be an actress. Nelson Mandela said: Everything that’s done for me, without me, is against me “. This sentence may be a bit excessive but not totally wrong. Thus, the culture that is made without the participation of people with disabilities goes against inclusion.

H.fr: What message would you like to send to young people with disabilities who are embarking on a career in cinema?
JRT: You have to persevere in your projects… provided you have the sacred fire. Even if there is still work to do, society seems to be more and more tolerant of difference, the question of inclusion is on everyone’s lips so you have something to play for, a personal and collective destiny to write. It won’t be easy but persevere, it’s now or never. Be actors of this inclusive society!

“All reproduction and representation rights reserved. © Handicap.fr. This article was written by Cassandre Rogeret, Handicap.fr journalist”

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