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Festival features films about, created by individuals with Down syndrome

After Ethan Saylor's death in 2013, many families in the Down syndrome community say they tended to avoid movie theaters, but a film festival opening in Annapolis this weekend aims to change that.

Saylor, 26, died of asphyxiation after three off-duty Frederick County sheriff's deputies working as security at a Frederick theater handcuffed him when he refused to leave after watching the film "Zero Dark Thirty."

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"A lot of us have avoided the movies because of [Saylor's death]. This gives us a chance to take back our joy," said Stephanie Holland, organizer of the Ethan Saylor Memorial Film Festival, which features works created by or about those with Down syndrome.

It opened Saturday and runs through Sunday at the Bow Tie Cinemas Harbour 9 Theater in Annapolis.

A medical examiner found that Saylor died of positional asphyxia and excited delirium, complicated by his disability and weight, and ruled the death a homicide.

A grand jury declined to indict the deputies, and an internal department investigation cleared them of wrongdoing.

Saylor's family has sought an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department.

His death sparked a nationwide campaign to bring attention to police interactions with disabled individuals. In Maryland, a commission was created by then-Gov. Martin O'Malley to make recommendations for what police should do when dealing with people who have developmental disabilities.

"It was an eye-opener for the Down syndrome community. It has lasting effects," Holland said. "If it could happen to Ethan, it could happen to our own children," she said.

Holland said she became friends with the Saylors after her son, Joshua, and Ethan Saylor were delivered at the same hospital by the same midwife just two weeks apart. Both had Down syndrome. Holland remained close with the Saylors until moving out of state but reconnected after learning the news of their son's death.

Ethan Saylor's mother, Patti Saylor, said she was pleased that Holland wanted to honor her son and "to use the occasion to highlight the creative talents and gifts of people with Down syndrome."

She said her son loved watching movies, and would go several times a month.

Patti Saylor said she still struggles with the loss of her son, who would have turned 30 this year. She said he would have loved to create his own movies and be a part of the film festival.

"We can't do things with him anymore. It's sad that we ran out of time. We still miss him terribly," she said.

Holland said she was inspired to create a film festival to honor Ethan Saylor's memory, as well as to raise awareness about the challenges that people with Down syndrome and their families face.

She previously founded a blog called "The Road We've Shared," which offers support for families with adults with Down syndrome.

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Among the 11 films featured in the festival is one called "Ethan's Law," a feature-length documentary directed by Edward Rhodes about Saylor's death and how his family worked for reforms to prevent future incidents.

Holland said she's unaware of another festival that focuses solely on those with Down syndrome. Mainstream media do not often feature actors with Down syndrome, she said.

"That's one of the issues in the wider disability community. We don't have a lot of mainstream media," she said.

When organizing the festival, Holland said, she was unsure about the level of interest but quickly received many entries.

"We were surprised. We had to actually not include some films because we just didn't have enough time," she said.

Holland said she hopes the event will draw others from outside the community and show how capable those with Down syndrome are when given the chance.

"It was born out of tragedy, but it's really a story about how change can happen," she said.

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