Alison Smith on Deaf and Disabled aesthetics in film

On Wednesday 5 December, CCA will host an event as part of the Scottish Queer International Film Festival (SQIFF). This live discussion will focus on Deaf & Disabled Aesthetics in Film.

The session will feature presentations from people working in Deaf and Disabled film aesthetics, including actor, filmmaker, and Artistic Director of Turtléar, EJRaymond; Glasgow-based creative access organisation, Collective Text - and artist, curator, and consultant, Caglar Kimyoncu.

The presentations will be followed by an open discussion, hosted by SQIFF’s Access & Engagement Coordinator, Alison Smith. We spoke to Alison to find out more.

Tell us about this event - what issues will the discussion touch on and why?

Deaf and Disabled Aesthetics in Film brings together Deaf and Disabled professionals within the sector to discuss the practical and creative aspects of captioning and audio description; what this means in terms of content/subject matter, artistic values and Deaf and Disability experiences within film.

This is a far cry from the ‘tragic but brave’ definition that frequently features in the film industry’s output. Me Before You is a prime example of how we are defined in cinematic terms as a tragedy, with assisted suicide as the only option.

There are great Disabled and Deaf filmmakers who are challenging [this] within contemporary practice, and within Disability Arts cross-art form practice. We live in an increasingly visual world 24/7 online, with film a powerful medium. Yet, at the same time, both Deaf and Disabled filmmakers and audiences are left behind.

Why is it important to integrate accessibility into filmmaking, rather than seeing captions and audio description as an ‘extra’ element?

We all have the right to watch good films, be represented properly in films and even more so [in] ones that are accessible. Failing to incorporate captions, audio description or British Sign Language is ignoring a substantial audience.

In the UK, one in seven people are Deaf or Hard of Hearing (11 million people with 70,000 BSL users), and one in 30 (two million) have sight loss.

It’s a huge market to ignore, on top of audiences who’d benefit because their first language is not English, or those with cognitive impairments who find captions useful. By incorporating accessibility measures, the audience reach is far wider. It is cost effective.

Planning these elements in to the start of the film can add and even influence and enhance the creative process of a film.

The 2018 Artists Moving Image Festival Down a Material Mouth programme was captioned and live captioned for a full day for Deaf and Hard of Hearing audiences by Collective Text for the first time. The process included creative discussions with the artists and led to a number of artists incorporating their own captions and live captioning in installations and performances.

Raina Haig - a visually impaired filmmaker - was the first person to incorporate audio description into her film DRIVE in 1999 at production stage. The seamless narrative flows in her film about a couple driving through the north of England to visit their son’s grave and their encounters. This was nearly 20 years ago - it would be fantastic to see more productions follow suit.

What more can be done across the sector to improve accessibility?

Strategically, it’s about willingness to engage filmmakers to incorporate accessibility measures from the pre-planning stage; for all funders to fund access costs on top of the core project budgets; to ring fence funding; and to support accessibility at film festivals - like SQIFF does - to truly be fully inclusive.

Rarely do film festivals offer captioned films unless it happen to be a foreign language. It’s simply not good enough.

Also, the focus tends to be just on elements like captioning, audio description (AD), British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation as an add on after the film is complete. The film industry needs to consider the content of film, consult with Disabled and Deaf people during the creative process, and employ Deaf and Disabled actors and filmmakers. The Diversity Network is working with major broadcasters such as BBC, ITV, and Sky to address diversity in the widest context. We need measures like that to make a difference.

Practical access like captioning, AD and BSL needs to be planned and budgeted for at the start and fundraised for. The key “problem” is these measures cost money, but this is gained back through the wider [market] that it reaches.

I’d like to see the funding sector offer guidance to support these costs within their funding programmes, and to assess applications to include captioning and AD as a basic access measure and monitor provision as part of the criteria. Arts Council England included access costs on top of the funding available and also at times ring-fenced it. I’d like to see funders take a proactive stand on this.

In Australia back in 2011, Film Victoria introduced accessibility measures as part of their funding criteria particularly with the gaming industry. It proved financially successful, not only increasing audiences, but also providing major revenue.

In what ways is SQIFF accessible as a festival?

SQIFF has a track record of making it’s events accessible by default, and this year is no exception - not just in terms of physical access, but also by programming work by Queer Disabled and Deaf filmmakers. I’d like to see all film festivals fall suit.

Some ways in which SQIFF is accessible:

  • A sliding scale ticket policy from free to £8 depending on circumstances
  • Every film or short has been captioned or subtitled
  • Audio Described screenings
  • Alternative formats including large print materials and handouts
  • Content warnings for films e.g. triggering content, flashing lights etc
  • Using venues that have full wheelchair accessible
  • Gender neutral toilets
  • BSL interpretation at extended introductions and Q&A panel sessions and BSL interpreters can be booked for  workshops on request. We also produced a BSL trailer.
  • Screenings of an hour or less for those who cannot sit in a cinema space for extended period of time.
  • A designated quiet space at CCA (Creative Lab) for anyone who needs time out
  • Comfy beanbags and high back chairs for those who need them at screenings
    - A travel fund for anyone on a low income or requires taxi or alternative transport due to access or safety

This year we want to make events friendly for those with sensory impairments or sensitivity to sound, so we are asking our audience to wave instead of clapping during events.

What other work does SQIFF’s Access & Engagement Coordinator do across the programme?

The role is a new role building on the great work that Helen Wright, Festival Coordinator and Programmer has done to date and much of the work has included engaging with other organisations, community and health organisations that work with marginalised groups and individuals and meeting people on a one to one basis. It also involves working with the the SQIFF team to support access measures being put in place.

What are you hoping participants will take away from the discussion?

A sense of possibility and how easy it is to incorporate access measures creatively to  enhances film production and delivery.

Also to encourage filmmakers to plan access measures into their projects, to apply to funders like yourselves with this in mind and to look wider to employ talented Disabled and Deaf filmmakers and actors out there.

Image: Alison Smith

Further information on Creative Scotland's Equalities and Diversity Work

Creative Scotland has a dedicated Equalities and Diversity team. See more guidelines, information and resources on EDI.