The Captioning Conundrum: Why Hollywood Film Fests Still Struggle To Serve Deaf Audience Members

The Captioning Conundrum: Why Hollywood Film Fests Still Struggle To Serve Deaf Audience Members

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When the Toronto Short Film Festival organizers told deaf filmmaker and artist Chella Man they couldn't provide services such as English interpreters or subtitling for deaf and hard of hearing visitors, she wasn't surprised. However , Why People Want to Be Remembered was pulled from the festival. His films deal with the challenges that the deaf and hard of hearing face, especially when they have to deal with technology.

“We need the most diverse, inclusive and narrative stories,” says the man behind the mandate of many performance festivals. "But the mission statement doesn't reflect their actions."

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Earlier this year, the Sundance Film Festival jury walked out of the premiere of "Magazine Dreams," starring Jonathan Majors, after it became apparent that Oscar-winning drama competition judge Marley Matlin's subtitle device malfunctioned early on. movie. the film While the portrayal of people with disabilities is increasingly being promoted at major festivals, access for deaf and hard of hearing attendees remains limited and requirements vary widely, with some having none at all.

For example, the TIFF format sets standards, while Sundance and SXSW require subtitles for all films shown. Most festival-goers will enter through a Dolby CaptiView device, a small seat-mounted screen that displays subtitles while a movie is playing. He's very technically sensitive, which is why Delbert Wetter, a deaf filmmaker and vice president of RespectAbility, says he was "not surprised" by the situation at Sundance. “They offer something that we know has a high dropout rate for the deaf,” Wetter explained. "You don't want to have something that depends on training and maintenance when you have volunteer staff." (Dolby did not respond to a request for comment.)

A few years ago, accessibility was out of the question at festivals. During the COVID-19 pandemic, festivals moved online, where they became more accessible as there were no physical barriers to face-to-face festivals. With his personal return approaching, talk of access to the film festival began to skyrocket. “It was different at the last Sundance in 2020,” says designer John Bastian, a veteran of several film festivals including Sundance, of recent advances in accessibility for deaf visitors. He added that "everything has changed a lot in two or three years." (Projectors like Bastian might be asked to oversee subtitle equipment at festivals.)

Sundance has long been recognized as an industry leader in visitor accessibility. However, this year there have been controversies. When Matlin was nominated for the American Drama Jury, Sundance required filmmakers in that section of the competition to provide open copies of their films in addition to the required subtitles. (Open subtitles are inserted into the frame of the movie during editing, while closed subtitles are displayed through an external device.)

After the Dreams magazine screening, the drawn filmmakers reportedly refused to provide captions for artistic reasons, but several filmmakers told THR that the request came before the global holiday, leaving them confused and with open captions. if the mandate has already been granted. (Independent filmmakers often write custom subtitle scripts to make sure they match the on-screen action, which can take weeks in post-production and cost thousands of dollars.) That's a note, Sundance's accessibility officials. , says Laura Benj, "they thought it through and "[open captioning], knowing that filmmakers need time to budget [and] produce their films in advance."

Festival organizers note that at Sundance, CaptiView devices are thoroughly tested before performances, and Matlin's device was up and running within minutes after the theater staff reported the error. Because CaptiView is a wireless system, it may fail if there is a problem with the theater's wireless network or if the unit is too far from the central transmitter, which is usually located near the projection booth.

Bastian suggests that festivals should have a full-time employee whose only job is to take care of subtitle technology and cinema accessibility requirements. This year, SXSW hired an accessibility specialist to meet residential needs and upgraded its legacy CaptiView equipment to the latest Dolby closed captioning technology, the Dolby Accessibility Solution.

While universal access remains limited at international festivals such as Cannes and Venice, open captioning is becoming more common as global audiences become accustomed to local or English subtitles. Last year, advocacy group FWD-Doc (which hires documentary filmmakers with disabilities) issued a press release about Cannes' severe inaccessibility, including the lack of wheelchair access to places like the famous Grand Lumiere Theatre. Shortly thereafter, the organization, in partnership with the Film Festival Alliance, launched the Accessibility Scoring System, an online questionnaire template for users to provide feedback on their experience at the festival. Supporters of FWD Doc Acting Director and Deaf Film Producer Amanda Upson point to the Dashboard as a way for festivals to work directly with deaf attendees to create a usable access infrastructure.

There is no universal bullet, but campaigners and supporters say open captioning is the best course of action if festivals want to create a similar experience. “With open captioning, there is no sense of shared privilege or class,” Wetter says. But Gabe Van Amburgh, executive program director of the SXSW film festival, says there were some creative ideas. He says: "For many filmmakers, everything that happens on the screen is still very important."

But even at the biggest festivals, participants who are deaf or hard of hearing must apply for accommodation themselves and prove the availability of closed captioning technology. And there's a tension around accountability: festivals put pressure on filmmakers, who at the same time want more direction in what they have to offer. “We don't want to react and give money to the manager,” says Beng. “Accessibility has to be a shared commitment to really make a difference.”

“You have to remember that this is really an ecosystem. This is an issue that we all need to bring together to move forward,” added Beth Janson, director of TIFF.

This person says that festivals can live their passion if they "consciously consider the time and expense it takes to really show that their festival is accessible."

A version of this story first appeared in the April 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter. Click here to register .

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