- 14 Jul 17
New Irish film Sanctuary is groundbreaking in its portrayal of intellectual disabilities – and has had a very real effect on Irish law.
This month, a film is being released in Ireland that is groundbreaking in many ways. Len Collins’ dramedy Sanctuary is the story of Larry and Sophie, two adults with intellectual disabilities, who convince their care worker Tom to book them a hotel room, so that they can spend time together. Their friends, all of whom also have intellectual disabilities, notice that Tom is distracted trying to arrange this and seize the opportunity to explore the city, getting up to all manner of hijinks.
The film was adapted from Christian O’Reilly’s play of the same name, originally produced by the Galway-based Blue Teapot Theatre Company, a performing arts school and outtreach programme for people with intellectual disabilities. By working with actors with intellectual disabilities, the company tries to accurately represent their experiences, and Collins remained true to the production and its goals by keeping the original cast, which is almost entirely comprised of actors with disabilities – a unique decision. By taking this approach, Collins not only challenges the film industry’s frequent aversion to authentic representation, but provides a level of insight and empathy that reflects its collaborative nature.
Sanctuary joins those rare films that address intellectual disabilities and actually feature actors with those disabilities. The Belgian arthouse film Little Baby Jesus of Flandr featured actors with Down Syndrome; the Brazilian film Colegas tells the story of three young people with the disability working in a video library; and The Eighth Day director Jaco Van Dormael often works with Pascal Duquenne, the first actor with Down Syndrome to win the Best Actor Award in Cannes in 1996.
But the film’s representation and casting choices aren’t the only way in which Sanctuary is groundbreaking. The film was actually cited by Irish politicians as one of the reasons that a law criminalising sex between people with intellectual disabilities was repealed earlier this year.
Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act 1993 made it illegal for two people with intellectual disabilities to have sex with each other unless they were married. This law was ostensibly to protect people with intellectual disabilities from being sexually exploited and abused. It must be acknowledged that abuse is unfortunately common. However, the law also played into the infantilisation and desexualisation of people with disabilities, which is so prevalent in society.
By refusing to acknowledge that people with intellectual disabilities can have consensual sex, the law created a situation where people with intellectual disabilities were neither supported nor encouraged to look for romantic and sexual relationships – a normal and indeed vital part of life. It also instilled fear in many people with intellectual disabilities, whose relationships placed them in danger of receiving a prison sentence for having consensual sex.
Ironically, a knock-on effect of this law also placed people with intellectual disabilities at risk of having unsafe sex. As the law enabled the cultural desexualisation of people with conditions like Down Syndrome, many caretakers and even parents shied away from providing proper sex education and information regarding contraception. This issue is addressed in the film, as Larry and Sophie try to navigate using condoms, even though nobody has taught them how.
By portraying the complexity of the characters’ experiences of sexuality and demonstrating how limiting and ultimately damaging the law was, Sanctuary became a key talking point in the campaign to repeal this law, which was overturned in February.
That Sanctuary was cited as a major influence in the decision shows just how impactful representation of disability onscreen can be – and why more films need to follow its example.