Colin Hambrook reviews the year's big disability celebration in Trafalgar Square
What a great gig the Liberty Festival was this year. I certainly had a lovely afternoon out with the family. My four-year-old daughter wowed the crowds of friends and Disability Arts (DA) colleagues, dressed in her best party frock. Inspired by the trapeze act in front of the National Gallery, she decided to emulate by insisting on developing the skill of climbing up her long-suffering father. It was synchronicity that the massive talents of Julie McNamara and Deborah Williams happened along just at the right moment … who knows where it might lead. I’ve a feeling my girl will go far. She just needs to acquire a disability to get in with this crowd.
This year's fest of comedy, circus, film, music, dance and carnival was obviously helped by the fact that God gave a helping hand with some great weather … but the idea of splitting Trafalgar Square into different zones, with various DA organisations leading with their individual expertise, meant much more of a focus and a variety. We arrived late but caught Xtreme Link rapping their hearts out with some great hip-hop. The best noise of the day came from Brighton’s Heavy Load. They just make me fill with a warm glow when they get in their stride.
However the bit I got most into was LDAF's film tent. (Although there was a distinct lack of Braille programmes and I wondered how much audio description was available, if any.) There was a constant shift in mood, pace and genre with each short film screened. Some of the films had a disability focus and some not. The most memorable was Ray Harrison Graham’s Lion Mountain. Made in 2003, the film won a One World Media Award and a BAFTA for Best Children's Drama. It is a powerful account of a brother and sister escaping a war zone and arriving as refugees in London. The film shows great attention to small details – like the scene where the young lad sits on a pavement finishing a drink. He looks up just as a passer-by happens to put a coin in his empty plastic cup. It is a small detail which speaks volumes about how much change the boy has to go through to learn to adapt to a different culture - even the more benevolent aspects. I think you could argue that any film about war is also about disability, and racism. More than anything it is a film that asks you to think about the assumptions you might make, without thinking, in any given situation - the one thing that seemed to be lacking with this film.
Liberty has become the year's big disability party event and Heart n Soul reflected that with ‘Look’ – a dance routine full of colour and co-ordination, featuring more than 60 performers. However, there were hitches. The Alexandras provided the day's big finale, with a piece called 'Priscilla, Queen of the Deaf World'. The three queens and their bronzed Adonises made a huge, fabulous entrance down the central steps, ablaze with feathers, sequins, swans and stilettos … and just as they were to launch into their sign-song spectacular, the music packed up! They were left mid-entrance with a thousand eyes on them and to their credit managed to keep the crowd engaged, with tremendous composure, until they could get the sound system back into gear. It was a mark of how seasoned and professional the likes of Caroline Parker have become, since the days of the LDAF cabaret.
Can a festival such as Liberty ever get it completely right? The biggest hitch was that the lift in Trafalgar Square was out of action … ouch! How on earth did that happen! Yet, everyone just seemed to get on with it and I for one, had a strong sense that yes - Disability and Deaf Arts has arrived for a much wider audience. Over the course of the day there must have been a good few thousand punters attracted by the event. My partner overheard a conversation on the Tube afterwards. A woman who said she went to Liberty to find out more about disability because of a disabled colleague, said she’d learnt a lot more about the kinds of obstacles her colleague had to contend with. She and a friend commented that they’d found some of the acts 'inspirational' but felt some of politics went over their heads.
So well I guess Liberty is having an impact. Or is it? We’ve lost the days of cabaret and raging against the non-disabled machine – but God knows, couldn’t we still do with some of that? We might have the Disability Discrimination Act and Disability Action Planning from every opening – but have disabled people got a voice? By implication the name of this festival presumes that we do. It makes the presumption with gusto. And wherever that might lead, long may it continue, for the opportunities that it creates and audiences it attracts.