As 104 Films prepares to screen two films at Edinburgh, Sarah Cooper speaks to founders Justin Edgar and Alex Usborne about giving disabled and disadvantaged talent opportunities in the industry.

“We will be 10 years old next year, and it’s a coming of age for 104 Films,” says Alex Usborne, one half of the UK production company he set up with Justin Edgar in 2004, specialising in “the representation of disabled and disadvantaged talent in front of and behind the camera.”

The pair have two films screening at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this week: Edgar’s “anti teen” movie We Are The Freaks which is competing for the Michael Powell Award and is being distributed in the UK this year by Metrodome; and Morag McKinnon and Emma Davie’s documentary I Am Breathing, which 104 Films boarded as associate producers [the film’s main producers are the Scottish Documentary Institute] and screens on June 21st at the festival.

The documentary, about a young father diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease, will also screen in cinemas across the UK and worldwide on the 21st as part of Motor Neurone Disease Awareness Day, with all the profits going to the Motor Neurone Disease Association.

“It’s a film which makes you want to seize the day and appreciate life,” says Edgar of the documentary, which has not yet been snapped up by a UK distributor.

104 Films will also be running two training schemes for disabled talent in Edinburgh; A business and marketing development programme for outstanding disabled producers run in conjunction with Creative Skillset called Generator, and a workshop for 30 emerging Scottish disabled filmmakers, run with Creative Scotland, as well as a shorts programme for disabled talent.

As if they weren’t busy enough writing, directing, producing and mentoring, Edgar is running for the BAFTA Film Committee, which he hopes will enable him to push the disability agenda in the film industry, as well as pushing the idea of a “Diversity BAFTAs”. And the duo has also won a contract to run a new non disability training scheme for Creative Wales.

Meanwhile, another of 104 Film’s projects, No Fixed Abode, which was directed by Steve Rainbow and made in collaboration with homeless people, has been picked up for UK distribution by Ballpark, who will release later this year.

Are you looking forward to Edinburgh?

Justin: We have had a longstanding relationship with the EIFF. We have done many disability events there and we had a great screening of No Fixed Abode there last year which helped to secure a distributor [Ballpark].

There will be a massive tangible disabled presence in Edinburgh which I think is really important. It really gets to the heart of what 104 Films is about.

Training and development of disabled film talent seems to be as important to you as producing films…

Alex: It’s something we have always done. We are a production company, but we are a training and development company. Every film we make is a training opportunity. It’s about development of a voice and we want to bring it into the mainstream. That’s our mission.

J: The idea was always to not only make films about disability subjects but also to get disabled people making films. Disabled people have a unique perspective on the world and can say things that are incredibly interesting.

Is the film industry’s perceptions of disability starting to change?

J: If you look at the big awards season films recently you had Untouchable, The King’s Speech, The Sessions. Disability is a subject matter that people like because it’s about the extremes of human experience.

The 2012 Paralympics has started to change perceptions. The UK is potentially a world leader in this. We could very easily be at the forefront of disability in film. Other disability film festivals around the world look to the UK.

But the film industry is notoriously difficult to break into. Is there still a gap between the training schemes and the reality of how many disabled people are working in the industry?

A: 13% of the population are disabled, and 1% of the film industry is. There is a big gap and we all know that.

We want to see disabled training on every film. We have a database of about 600 disabled film talent, so it is completely possible to have a disabled trainee on every film.

J: We feel like the industry is sitting up and taking us seriously, which hasn’t always been the case. But we need more support. It doesn’t cost a lot of money, it is just a simple thing to do. We have the database and the know how to do it. There is an element of people being a bit wary and thinking “oh my god we’ve got someone who is visually impaired on set”. But we’ve developed the expertise to make sure that this isn’t an issue.

How did 104 Fims come about?

J: I was at the Birmingham Film Festival in 1998, I had a short film there, Dirty Phone Calls, which won best film. I was armed with a feature film script for my first feature, Large, and someone told me about Alex Usborne who was a regional producer based in Sheffield. I was a regional director, based in Birmingham. We found each other at the award ceremony, got talking, Alex expressed an interest in my script, I sent him a copy of the script of Large, a teen comedy, which was not disability themed. Alex rang me up a week later and literally a year later I was standing on set making my first film aged 28.

And where did the interest in championing disabled film talent come from?

A: Justin is deaf in one ear, and has always been interested in disability issues and made some works for Channel 4 on disability.

We began with a short film called Special People, which just took off. It played 100 festivals, and then we went on to make the feature version of Special People with a disabled cast, which played in Edinburgh where it found the money to finish it and a distributor.

In 2008 the UKFC advertised for someone to run its short film scheme for disabled talent, which we won. A month later we went for a UKFC Visions Award and we got that. Then we got a big contract from the Olympics, to run workshops for their Film Nation Shorts.

J: It turned into a great business model, we weren’t just a low budget British production company, we were also a training provider. It gave us more capital and allowed us to develop projects. That’s one of the reasons we got involved as a co-producer on Mat Whitecross’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll.

What’s next?

A: We have commissioned a film from a company called Bigger House (working title Light and Dark), a part documentary, part animated comedy about an autistic animator and an idiot documentary film maker. Tom Stubbs and Michael Smith star and direct.

J: I’ve got a noir crime thriller, which is at final draft stage, set in Birmingham, called They’re Not Gonna Get Us. It’s very dark and a change of pace. I’ve done 3 comedies in a row, Large, Special People and We Are The Freaks, so it’s nice to do something different.

A: We’ve begun to have the capacity to make one or two films a year, we are able to generate quite a bit of finance. We had no public funding at all on We Are The Freaks. We have become quite adept at raising private cash and doing equity deals with post houses.

What are your ambitions for the future?

A: We want to keep making two features a year and carry on building on our short films and training.  And to push for the Diversity BAFTAs. We often use the word tectonic. It’s making that step change in perception. You have to push and push. The Paralympics did it and we are trying to do the same.

J: I would like to see disability in the conscience behind the camera as much as in front of it.