28 April 2011

Captions Do Not Ruin the Cinematic Experience

Captions Do Not Ruin the Cinematic Experience
© Rhianon Elan Gutierrez
Originally written and published on July 26, 2009 for Blogathon Vancouver.

In honor of the inspiring educational promo video above made by media access advocates in Australia, I wanted to re-share my first piece of activist writing. My friend Ganga from Vancouver emailed me to ask if I could contribute an entry about hearing loss for this 24 hour Blogathon that he did on July 26, 2009. Inspired by my educational journey with captioning, I decided to write on the issue. In film school, I watched so many films--and the ones that were the most accessible to me were those that I watched in my film history class that documented the birth of cinema to 1945.

It's no secret about the articles that I have written since 2009, and that the necessity of having educational access to films, especially in film schools, still remains.
Still from A Trip to the Moon (1902), a film by Georges Melies.

When cinema emerged as an art form in the early 1900s with the films of Melies and the Lumiere Brothers, moviegoers—both deaf and hearing—were able to experience its images on equal terms. Silent films were enjoyed by all who could see, but when the talkies came in the 1920s, they ushered in a new era of experiencing cinema, where sound and picture were one and title cards fell into oblivion. This radical change created the division that still exists today for the way that people with hearing loss can fully experience cinema. Closed captioning and rear window captioning have, in recent decades, tried to alleviate this barrier by providing words to accompany the sound, but even they come at a price.

My earliest memory is of myself at age two, looking into an encyclopedia and pointing at a picture of the stage actress Maude Adams. A lover of cinema, I always watched actors express themselves onscreen, mimicking their movements and lip motion. I wanted to be an actress, but I changed my focus to writing and directing years later because I realized that what I wanted to do was not only create, but to change. I attended film school at Chapman University for four years, where, as the only profoundly deaf individual in the film program, I experienced the absence of closed captioning in films that were especially prominent as a documentary film student: student films and documentaries.

Student-made films are very tricky to caption. Film students are often really stressed out to meet a deadline, are burning their DVDs at the last minute, running low on money, just plain careless, or all of the above when it comes to captioning an English-language film for anyone, let alone one person. Even I admit to not captioning a few of my films because I had no time and little help–which always puts me a horrible, uninspired mood. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown in post production on a five-minute film I directed in 2007 because the sound editing process was so grueling for me while I was simultaneously adjusting to my first year hearing sounds with a cochlear implant. Six months later, when I made a documentary about a man with hearing loss and showed it to my deaf/HOH friends, I had to caption it or I’d be a hypocrite. I listened to the footage over and over again and single handedly captioned the entire ten-minute film. It’s hard to convince other film students to physically dedicate the time as I did. I seemed to be good at informing fellow students about the benefits of captioning and getting them inspired to caption their films, but it never materialized. Perhaps I didn’t challenge them enough, or they ran out of time. Of course, there are also those who feel that words on the screen distract from the visual experience. Film students can be pretentious that way, and even I hate it when captions appear over someone’s face, or when they are white captions on a black and white film. I agree that captions shouldn’t distract; they should enhance. If people saw it that way, I’d hope they would be more accepting. It’s important to educate others about the benefits and proper use of closed captions, and especially to advocate for them in an educational setting (because access is required by law). If carelessness persists, then how can we work with current and future technologies to help future film students with hearing loss be on the same playing field as their peers?
DVD cover for Docurama's release of Touch the Sound (2004).

Documentaries are considered a progressive, social medium, albeit one that makes little profit. I’m a documentary filmmaker who has yet to see a dime from any of my films, yet I still think that money is a poor excuse for the absence of captions. It really comes down to two things: silence and a lack of accountability. One of my favorite documentaries of all time, Touch the Sound, about the deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie, had closed captions. I loved the film, so I wanted to see Rivers and Tides (by the same director) but saw that it wasn’t captioned. It, like Touch the Sound, was released by Docurama, a major documentary distribution company. Many other documentaries from Docurama and from other distributors are often not captioned unless they are mainstream or are expected to have a large audience of people with disabilities. I understand that Touch the Sound had captions because a large portion of its audience was likely deaf or hard of hearing. If it’s one by Michael Moore (Bowling for Columbine), Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me), or Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line), then it will likely be captioned because of popular demand, but if it’s Frederic Wiseman (who made Titicut Follies, a verite doc set in a mental institution) or the next controversial subject, it’s not captioned too often. While I watch a variety of films, I find mainstream ones to be limited in their depth, and feel frustrated about not being able to watch films like Rivers and Tides, unless I send it to a real time caption company and get it captioned for me, but even this is costly. To change this situation, it is necessary to “break the silence”—speak up to filmmakers, production companies, and distributors about making sure that the documentaries you care about are captioned. Hold them accountable for not getting the films you care about captioned. Don’t just settle for the mainstream ones or you’ll be missing out on some powerful stories that filmmakers or subjects went through extraordinary lengths to tell.

As an activist filmmaker, I seek to find inclusive solutions that would eliminate the barrier that sound created decades ago. I believe that we have the resources to make films accessible for those with hearing loss, but lack proper awareness and the knowledge of what it means to be advocates.

No comments:

Post a Comment