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Casting light on discrimination

Sanctuary is a Len Collin-directed feature film which casts people with Down’s syndrome and autism in leading roles. It has received widespread critical acclaim and been credited with opening-up conversations about how wider society treats people with intellectual disabilities. The film also emphasises how poorly such individuals are represented in cinema, prompting debate about authentic casting across film and television. Since its release, Sanctuary has been a revelation, receiving several international accolades and triggering a truly momentous change in the law. 

Len Collin, Senior Lecturer in Screenwriting, Film and Television Production at Northumbria University, directed Sanctuary in 2016. It was made with funding from The Irish Film Board, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland and RTE, for a budget of €800,000.  

Produced in the best tradition of British and Irish cinema and social realism, the film’s main cast is, uniquely, formed of people with intellectual disabilities. By placing individuals with Down’s syndrome and autism in key roles, it holds a mirror up to society and, for audiences, raises historically uncomfortable issues in the sort of profound way that only a cinematic setting can deliver.  

The film’s narrative centres on a law in Ireland – Section 5 of the criminal law act, 1993 – which makes it illegal for two of the film’s characters to have a sexual relationship because they both have intellectual disabilities. One of its main aims, therefore, is to raise awareness of the injustices surrounding an archaic law, while also starting constructive dialogue around themes of representation. 

In 2017, the film’s impact could not have been starker – the law in Ireland changed and sexual relationships between individuals with intellectual disabilities became legal. Sanctuary was duly cited as a major influence in making that seismic change happen and – appropriately – the announcement was made at Sanctuary’s Dublin premiere by Sarah Lennon from Inclusion Ireland. Disability Minister Finian McGrath was also in attendance, making the event a landmark occasion and a poignant reminder of cinema’s enduring ability to transcend and transform. Broader discussions on the need to change health and care practices to promote greater independence and introduce flexible approaches to social relationships for people with intellectual disabilities have also been initiated. 

Sanctuary’s ambition, humour and endearing character development has led to several rave reviews and a host of 4–5-star ratings, including maximum stars from the London Evening Standard and Irish Mail on Sunday. The film has had screenings all over the world and its ability to interweave romance with politics and discrimination has seen it win several awards, notably the 2017 Dublin Film Critics Circle Award for Best Irish Film. Its reach has, to date, stretched as far as Cairo, Amman, Tel Aviv, Moscow, Sydney, Melbourne, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and – in Europe – London, Newcastle, Luxembourg, Rome and Warsaw.  

Furthermore, schools, universities and outreach organisations have used the film as an educational tool. The film proves that disability is not a barrier and serves as evidence that authentic casting has a place in the entertainment industry. The actors from the film themselves have also been empowered, including successfully auditioning for new roles. To this end, Len and his team have worked with Spotlight casting services and the Casting Directors Guild to help raise the issue of inclusive and authentic casting. 

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