Films about disability often take a very serious approach to their subject, but a new movie is daring to cast disabled characters in a comic light. Steve Pratt reports.

WHEN the Irish President attended the premiere of the movie Inside I'm Dancing in Dublin, she didn't go to a cinema but the Four Seasons hotel, where a function room had been converted into a temporary picture house for the occasion. The audience was small - no more than 100 - by Hollywood first night standards. More unusual was that a third of them were disabled.

Their disabilities were the reason for the unconventional premiere of a film whose two leading characters are wheelchair-bound. "We couldn't hold the premiere in a cinema because they don't have enough access for wheelchairs," explains director Damien O'Donnell, who made the hit movie East Is East.

The percentage of disabled people in the audience will be considerably less once the film begins screening in multiplexes across the country. "On a day-to-day level, the general audience will consist of very few wheelchair users because cinemas only have a few spaces for them," he admits.

Film-makers' treatment of the disabled leaves much to be desired too. They prefer to hide them away and bring them out for special occasions.

Audiences will happily watch actors pretending to be mentally ill - think Tom Hanks as intelligence-impaired Forrest Gump or Dustin Hoffman as an idiot savant in Rain Man - and an Oscar is often their reward. Portraying them as real people is something from which film-makers shy away.

The death this week of Superman actor Christopher Reeve, left paralysed after a horse-riding accident nearly a decade ago, was a reminder that disabled people can make a difference, as he campaigned to raise funds for research and awareness of people like him.

He appeared in a remake of Rear Window, a rare instance of a disabled person being cast in movies. Others have included Marlee Matlin, playing a deaf person in Children Of A Lesser God, and handless veteran Harold Russell as a soldier adjusting to life back home in The Best Years Of Your Life. Both received Academy Awards.

MOVIES about the physically disabled are rare. Making them victims of war is one way to ease film-makers' consciences. The Men, starring Marlon Brando, and Coming Home, with Jon Voight, took that route. True stories provide another approach. Daniel Day-Lewis took home Oscar for his portrayal of cerebral palsy sufferer Christy Brown in My Left Foot. The Waterdance was written and co-directed by Neal Jimenez, a screenwriter left paralysed for life after breaking his neck.

Inside I'm Dancing is different because the story is fictional, daring to add un-PC comedy to the mix. Films about the disabled are expected to be grim and serious, just as the people themselves are typecast as angry and helpless.

The two main characters in O'Donnell's film are in wheelchairs but their hopes, fears and aspirations mirror those of any other twentysomething. They meet in a residential home for the disabled - "a special home for special people" - where they rebel against the strict regime and set up home together in the outside world. James McAvoy plays Rory, who has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a degenerative muscle-wasting condition. Michael, played by Steven Robertson, has cerebral palsy, which affects his movements and speech.

O'Donnell has been criticised for not using disabled actors. "I wasn't out to cast the physical disability. That would be quite a retrograde step because part of the issue people with disabilities have is that people only see wheelchairs and the physicality and don't actually see the people behind it," he says.

'SO what we wanted was to cast two people who were going to bring Rory and Michael to life, not to bring Duchenne muscular dystrophy to the screen for the first time or cerebral palsy yet again. You've seen Daniel Day-Lewis do it before. It's a job, a performance and requires brilliant acting talent. I wasn't looking to put reality on screen, it wasn't a documentary."

McAvoy adds: "It's about growing up, and first loves and mortality, things that everyone feels. And it's very funny. It's a cautionary tale for everyone."

The first two weeks of the shoot in Ireland were in a residential home, using disabled people as extras. "There was a lot of feedback and that was all very positive," recalls O'Donnell.

"We spoke to anyone who was available to us with any expertise in disability as well as people who had those conditions. James and Steven spent time just talking to them about their lives. Everything we got by talking to psychologists, speech therapists and physiotherapists, we put it in or amended the script.

"The whole idea of people falling in love with their carer is quite common.

"If you have a disability like the ones represented in the film you don't have a normal childhood or adolescence, so you don't learn lessons about relationships as you're growing up. You're more inclined to misinterpret people's feelings.

"What happens in the film isn't based on a real person like most disability films are. But a lot of events and situations are taken from real events and situations."

Marketing a film about disability is a tough sell, particularly one without big names or that doesn't fit neatly into any popular genre. "I do think people, and I include myself in that situation sometimes, might be put off unless the word-of-mouth is good. You'd look at this and say, 'I'm not sure if I want to see a film about two guys in wheelchairs'," says O'Donnell.

"The distributor Momentum is spending quite a lot of money to let people know the film is out there. Hopefully you create a critical mass of word-of-mouth, which keeps the film alive."

He's hoping audiences will have their attitudes to the disabled changed by Inside I'm Dancing, just as his did through making it. "One of the most uncomfortable afternoons I've ever spent was going into a hospital for disabled children, most of whose parents are no longer involved. If they have nowhere to go, they stay there until they're 14. Just to walk around the various wards and see these kids, I was really moved and felt uncomfortable, embarrassed, helpless," he says.

"It's an alien world. It's something general society is happy to turn away from, turn their back on and not give too much attention to it."

HE had a very different experience a few weeks later when invited to a residential home for a screening of Ability, a short film made by residents and carers. "I thought it was going to be some nice, flowery, well-meaning, good-intentioned short film with a little bit of humour. But Ability charts one resident as she goes from room to room and butchers the staff and residents. Then she wheels out the front door and down the street.

"That was such dark humour, but why not? My prejudices had been instantly overturned. I'd come to a conclusion about what disabled people were like, what their sense of humour must be, and had it completely turned on its head in that one event."

After that, he didn't feel bad about making Rory "a bit of an arsehole" or a "super-cripple" - a term used within the disability world about films where a brilliant person is trapped by a disability and, once you can see through that, a beautiful soul emerges.

That doesn't happen with Rory, O'Donnell points out. "Why can't he get up people's noses, be just another ordinary person? How hard is it to be ordinary? Everyone in everyday life wants to be different, to stand out from the crowd. Here are two guys who want to blend in and be like everyone else," he says.

* Inside I'm Dancing (15) is showing in cinemas now.