04 February 2011

Letters to the DOJ

In January, I asked readers to submit comments on the issue of movie captions.  There are many ways to talk about the issue and even today I am still learning the intricacies of how captioning really works in various stages of its creation.

My boyfriend Alex and I wrote letters to the Department of Justice about movie captions. I thought I'd share them here, and I'm particularly proud of Alex's.  He's captioned a handful of things for me without me even asking him to do so, and I'm grateful for his skills and even more grateful for his advocacy for me and millions of others who use captions.

And now, our letters.

January 23, 2011

Dear The U.S. Department of Justice:

(by Alex)
The technologies for captioning films have come a long way in the decades since the ADA became law, but their implementation has not reached the levels that legislation would imply. My hard-of-hearing girlfriend and I are both filmmakers and well acquainted with what it takes to get a film captioned. This knowledge has added to the frustrations we have felt in attempting to find captioned films to enjoy together.

Those who require captions to comprehend and enjoy the films they pay to see in a theater are limited to a small selection of screenings of a small selection of films each month. A wider selection of films would enrich not only the personal lives of those with hearing loss (as well as the social, cultural, and familial bonds of those connected to them), but could actually see an increase in theater attendance. For one thing, the retired population – which often have more leisure time in which to go to the theater – have a high incidence of hearing loss, and many would find the theater more appealing if they could follow along by reading the dialog instead of straining to hear it. Also, many of the hard-of-hearing film fans I know tell me often how they would love to see a certain film while it is in theaters, but they have to wait for a captioned screening (which never occurs with many films).

They are usually forced to wait for the film to be released in some other way. However, many significant films (such as most of the DVDs released by major documentary distributor Docurama) and the vast majority of titles offered on Netflix Instant Streaming are not available with captions.

Requiring 100% of films to be made available with captions is just as reasonable as requiring all buildings to be accessible to wheelchair users. Distributors certainly have it within their power to caption the films they release, and any major movie theater would benefit from devoting more of their screens to showing film prints and digital projections more often.

(by Rhianon)
I am a filmmaker, activist, and person with a hearing loss. As an emerging filmmaker, I have made it my mission to make films that are artistic, participatory, and inclusive of people with hearing loss. I can see both sides of the issue as a filmmaker and as an audience member. I want people to see my films and those of my peers and not just the larger budget films. The experience of making films is equally exhausting and rewarding. It is a profound experience for filmmakers to watch their work on the big screen. We’ve worked hard to make our films seen and it is through the efforts of many that they do get seen. I have shown my films at numerous theatres to packed audiences who have come up to me afterwards telling me how moved they were by the story and characters. These people have been people with and without a hearing loss. My films have usually been the only captioned ones of many. I’ve struggled to appreciate the films of my peers because they were not captioned. I do not value their work less, but I know that I do not value their work as much as I would if I could access it fully. I’ve been vocal about this because captioning is never just about one person. Captioning benefits many, but for it to matter, many have to speak up about how it helps them and/or those that are close to them.

As theatres transition to the digital age and films are screened with more ease, captioning should be less costly. Captioning files should exist for any film that will play on more than ten screens nationally. Each theatre that has these films should have caption files of each film that plays in it. Moviegoers should be able to access both in print (newspaper, magazine, and theatre printings) and on the Internet (theatre websites and caption search engines like Captionfish) what films will have captions or subtitles in theatres. I am optimistic about the way that technology is progressing and feel that this is a reasonable goal for filmmakers, distributors, exhibitors, and theatre owners to commit to doing, but consumers must also continue to communicate their needs.

There are various ways that moviegoers can access captions. I personally feel that rear window captioning should not be the standard. If we rely on rear window captioning, only select moviegoers will have access to the screens, but in order for the screens to work, the technology must be turned on and the moviegoer has to be seated a comfortable distance from the screen. This is exclusive and does not bring enough awareness to the larger public about captioning. I believe that open captions should become the standard because they can be seen at all times no matter where one sits. However, in order for any screening to have open captions, the captions need to be seamless and not distracting with white over a black and white image, spelling errors, or faces or credits being covered with captions. This is more the responsibility of those that caption the films, but I know that when captioning is done well and is used more often, it becomes a vital and seamless part of the viewing experience and people ask for it. 

I thank you for taking the time to read our comments.

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