Midwest Film Festival Embraces Rikki Lee Travolta & ‘The Sleight’

The Midwest Film Festival is the only festival in the nation that is dedicated specifically to celebrating the Midwest filmmaker. The festival sits proudly at the center of the vibrant creative production community in Chicago and the Midwest.

I still find it interesting to be a member of the Chicago film and television community. I have always felt most at home in Los Angeles, but I have a son who lives in Chicago and needs me nearby. So, as long as he’s here – so am I.

Fortunately for me, Chicago’s entertainment community is one of the best in the world. Hit series like Chicago Med, Chicago Fire, Chicago PD, The Bear, 4400, The Chi, Shameless, and Empire all have recently been shot here. Numerous films ranging from Transformers to Batman movies have been filmed in and around the city.

In addition to these big-budget, high-profile projects, Chicago is known for its incredible independent film community. Independent filmmaking, if you’re not familiar, is done outside the major film studio system. Famous independent films include Requiem for a Dream, Lost in Translation, Brokeback Mountain, Reservoir Dogs, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Donnie Darko.

Recently the Midwest Film Festival announced its annual awards honoring the Best in the Midwest. To my great honor, one of the films I had the pleasure of being involved in, The Sleight, was nominated for two awards. Ben Kurstin, who wrote and directed the film, is nominated for Best Editing. The other nomination is for me as Best Actor.

Ben and his production partner Tin Nguyen at 54 Scripts Productions are really remarkable filmmakers. I am so glad that Ben is being acknowledged for his editing work, because it is really top-notch.

And, if it wasn’t for Ben’s direction, Tin cinematography, and the talents of my co-stars Amy Stricker, Isabel Fugatt, and Freda Hu there is no way I would be in the running for such a prestigious honor.

So, what is this little gem of a film anyway? The Sleight is a thriller with dark comedy undertones about a small-time magician who is kidnapped by a trio of beauties from a seclusive polygamous cult who have been sent out into the secular world to search for the reincarnation of their spiritual leader.

I don’t do as many acting projects as I once did. I became disabled in 2008, so doing any kind of acting project requires all the stars to be in alignment. And, to be honest, there is a certain stigma at play that makes some filmmakers hesitate to use disabled talent.

While I am truly honored on a personal level for being nominated as best actor, what truly makes my heart soar is that a disabled actor is being recognized. It just happens to be me.

We live in a changing world, one where differences are starting to be celebrated instead of hidden.

In 2015, Ali Stroker became the first actor to use a wheelchair to appear on a Broadway stage. A few years ago in 2019, she became the first person with a disability to be nominated and receive the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.

Troy Kotsur won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 2022 for his role in Best Picture winner CODA. Troy is only the second deaf actor to win an Academy Award.

There is still ample discrimination, and there likely will be for the foreseeable future. But we are making strides – huge strides. And my hope is as an industry we will continue to do so.

The Midwest Film Festival Best of the Midwest Awards ceremony takes place Thursday, November 2, 2023, at CineCity Chicago. For information visit www.midwestfilm.com.

I will be in attendance that evening to cheer on Ben and applaud all the contenders in all of the categories. Whether I walk home with a trophy or not is secondary. The fact is, I feel like a winner just to be included in the conversation.

Some people ask me why I am so upfront about my disability. Mine isn’t a physical disability, I could hide it from the world – which I do when I’m acting.

But, what about that kid with a disability who is being told he can’t pursue his dreams because he’s not like other people? Somebody has to be a role model for him and the little boys, girls, and non-binaries like him that live with extra challenges.

I can’t help being disabled, but I can show by example what a disabled person can accomplish. And we as a society can continue to work towards embracing people of all types.

The more opportunities we give disabled people, the more success stories that we’ll hear about.

Peace. Love. Trust.

Rikki Lee Travolta

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