The citation for the MBE awarded last week to Sheffield’s Alex Usborne was for services to exports in media and promoting disability in film. He is co-founder of 104 Films, now established as world leaders in disability cinema.
“We are in a groove,” he says in his office in the Workstation. “I didn’t expect it and it came about by accident. I like work where it’s utterly different by unheard voices that speak to us.”
That was evident in his early films made in Sheffield, such as the boxing documentaries Johnny Fantastic and Brendan’s Boys, and especially his first feature , Tales from a Hard City, about four low-life dreamers in search of a break.
It won him a clutch of awards and over the next 20 years he went on to produce dramas as well as documentaries including The Acid House, adapted by Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh from a collection of his short stories.
It was back in 2004 that Usborne and Birmingham-based Justin Edgar set up 104 Films (named after a bus route)
Edgar, who directs, is partially deaf and his interest in disability issues led them to make Special People, a comedy about a filmmaker working with a group of young disabled people.
Their ambition was always to not only make films about disability subjects but also to get disabled people making films.
Only last week Usborne showed at Sheffield Doc/Fest 16 neuro diverse short films which had made under the Different Voices project in Bristol with neurodivergent film-makers .
At the same time 104 have been involved in making their own films, most notably co-producing the BAFTA-nominated feature, Notes on Blindness, dramatising writer and theologian John Hull’s audio diary recording his interior world of blindness.
Currently in production is Dawn of the Dark Fox, the first film by an autistic director, Bristol based Michael Smith and collaborator Tom Stubbs.
“Michael, who has autism spectrum disorder, has channelled his unique vision into this exciting project,” explains Usborne.
It is a comedy about autism, friendship and the film making process combining documentary, fiction and fantasy.
“There’s a double act with Tom his collaborator. It’s almost like a Laurel and Hardy buddy movie,” observes the producer. “They are on a quest to make the film and for Michael to find his expression. His own animation expresses his inner thoughts and the way he gets angry. The uber objective is to make it Michael’s world. It is his voice.”
Retreat, by Ted Evans, one of the UK’s leading deaf filmmakers, is also in pre-production. It centres on student Grace who abandons the hearing world to live in an all-deaf commune. “Two films’ high profile changed the landscape for us. Notes on Blindness and Unrest, in which American film-maker Jennifer Brea charts her own debilitating illness, which was shortlisted for the Academy Award for best documentary feature.
“The power of diversity is that different voices bring a new energy and approach to cinema. We have been developing disabled and neuro-diverse film talent for a decade now and with films like Notes on Blindness and Dawn of the Dark Fox we are finding voices and talent capable of entertaining audiences and changing the way we think about disability.”