Superfest 2017: The Complex World of Access

colorful abstract image of Superfest 2017 postcard Art by Anne Slater

By Catherine Kudlick

At Superfest International Disability Film Festival, we pride ourselves on modeling the complexity, messiness, and joy that comes when you know the price of admission doesn’t automatically include pity and shame. It’s a rare opportunity for people with disabilities to gather and bond as we celebrate being amongst friends who “get it” and we share this exuberance with newcomers. This year we have fifteen edgy, thought-provoking films that portray the disability experience from nine different countries.

We’ve come a long way and -- true to any enterprise with lofty aspirations -– there’s more we want to do. When the Longmore Institute and LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired took over Superfest five years ago, we decided to make access part of the experience for everyone. Our dream was to create a space where anyone could arrive knowing that they wouldn’t have to ask for “special” treatment. No need to request ASL interpreters in advance. No worry about showing up in a posse of wheelchair riders because you could expect to get in the door AND sit with your friends. And no worries if you couldn’t see everything that was happening on screen; there would be audio description.

Until AD came along in the 1970s (actually a product of San Francisco State), my visually-impaired comrades and I sat clueless during that key turning point in a film when a hand-written letter makes the audience gasp or the dog eating off the wedding banquet table had everyone around us in stitches. The accommodation has taken longer than captions to reach the mainstream in part because it’s subjective. Someone must make choices about what’s most important visually on screen and wedge just the right words into brief scene changes and pauses. Does it matter that a woman’s dress is yellow? Frilly? Torn? And what of her age, race, body type? Describing some details implies value judgments and makes the implicit explicit, which can make some people uncomfortable.

The truth is, after years of being largely unnoticed and unchanged, audio description is in a period of productive chaos. For decades, a tiny number of self-regulated professionals (most of them sighted people) worked hard to impart a sense of objectivity, inserting minimal information as unobtrusively as possible. Technology and crowd-sourcing have challenged this approach, leading to innovations such as the blind tech innovator Joshua Miele’s YouDescribe, a website where anyone can upload descriptions of YouTube videos. This crowd-sourcing is both more playful and more amateur — think Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Somewhere in-between are those who want to explore ways that AD can bring creative elements to blind and sighted people alike in the form of poetry or humor. At UC Berkeley, Georgina Kleege divides her students into groups, with each one describing one aspect of a film: objective, emotional, sociological. Imagine being able to re-watch a film from each perspective or choosing one that suits you best. Such complexity suggests that audio description could offer a new way to experience film, not unlike the introduction of “talkies” back in the 1920s that added new forms of creative expression.

In recent years, some film companies like Pixar and Disney have started to experiment with apps for mobile phones. Yet AD is still rare. Few people with vision impairments realize it exists, fewer employees in mainstream theaters know about the devices and how they work (assuming they work), and still fewer filmmakers think to incorporate description into their films.

At Superfest, we are excited about pioneering this little-known form of access. Rather than provide special headsets for blind and low-vision attendees, we decided early on to broadcast AD as part of the audiotrack for everyone. Until there’s the incentive of an Oscar for Best Audio Description, we’ll continue to do whatever we can to educate filmmakers. We already require them to provide an AD version in order to be shown at Superfest and we offer funds for those who don’t have the resources to pay for it. In a dream universe, we’d reach filmmakers at the beginning of their process when elements of AD can be more seamlessly built into script, timing, and other pre-production elements.

Several directors have risen to the challenge, using AD to show how they’re approaching future films. In one case, the director even said he would only show the described version from now on because it enriched the film. Some audience members have reported similar experiences; they noticed things they might have otherwise missed. And of course, blind and visually impaired people have been delighted to feel included in ways they never imagined possible.

At the same time, an accommodation that meets the needs of one public can create barriers for another. Audio description can be overwhelming, especially for anyone who needs to limit stimuli in order to effectively process information. At its worst, it can ruin the experience for everyone, breaking the spell by turning something ephemeral and lovely into something that can be jarringly literal.

As we explore how best to incorporate description, we have considered everything from parallel screenings to headphones for everyone to introducing a Superfest app that would set a new industry standard. (Smile.) Each has its promise and pitfalls.

This year for the first time, we’ll offer the option of watching some of the films without AD in a nearby room (by reservation), and after the showings, everyone will reconvene in the larger theater to mingle and join the panel discussions. This initial attempt is far from ideal: separate is never equal. While nobody has a good solution for a truly inclusive film experience, we can make real progress in this area through our collective ingenuity. By bringing together interested community members, filmmakers and technology innovators, this upcoming year we will explore these questions in hopes of bringing an even more groundbreaking film experience. After all, disabled people are the world’s best problem-solvers, and Superfest is a wonderful sandbox to test out new ideas.