Filmmaker Maya Washington shares lessons she's learned on the festival circuit with her narrative short, "White Space."
Washington suggests using ASL, or finding someone who can, to enhance the film experience for deaf film-goers.
When I released my short film, White Space, about a deaf poet performing for a hearing audience at an open-mic, I discovered that navigating the world of deaf accessibility can be a tricky endeavor for hearing filmmakers, even the most well-meaning among us. We screened in over 26 international festivals, won some awards, and learned a lot along the way. Here are 10 things you can do to make your film or festival deaf-friendly:
1) Expand your definition of diversity: In America, diversity is often synonymous with race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity, but rarely includes conversations about ability/disability. Creating and showcasing films with deaf characters and storylines, and using deaf actors to play deaf roles, are ways that filmmakers and programmers can advance and showcase a broader definition of diversity in our industry.
2) Learn Sign Language: Learning a little Sign Language can go a long way. There are apps available online and a number of basic Sign Language videos exist on YouTube. It’s important to note that American Sign Language (ASL) is an actual language like Spanish, French, or—hello, English. It has its own vocabulary, grammar rules, and sentence structure. It’s not the same as signing exact English where the sentence, “How are you?” is translated exactly as individual signs for the English words: How, Are, and You. Instead, ASL has its own nuanced expressions and phrases. Sign Language exists throughout the world and varies in style, rules, and signs, regionally and from country to country.
3) Engage Sign Language Interpreters: Unless you are completely fluent in Sign Language, engaging a certified ASL Interpreter is a must when you have deaf actors and technicians working on set, and whenever you participate in public screenings. While most deaf actors have found a way to move through both worlds, hearing filmmakers and programmers must provide this basic accommodation. It will not only improve communication and understanding, but demonstrates a mutual respect and literally gives your deaf cast or crew a voice on set.
4) Caption content: For a deaf person, your film or festival without captions is like a foreign film with no subtitles.Open and Closed captions are the two most commonly used formats in film and media. Open captions are burned onto the screen like subtitles, often accompanied by a black bar to make them stand out. Closed captions are denoted as a “CC” button or setting on your television or remote. For video hosting platforms online, this button activates captions on screen only when it is engaged. Your editor can create them manually, or you can use a caption company. The cost varies depending on the length of your film. Providing a time-coded transcript for your caption editor can also save time and money. It’s also increasingly common for VOD distributors to require CC in your film.
5) Investigate the technology at your venue: Technology has greatly advanced the ability for deaf, hard of hearing, and blind movie-goers to experience cinema thanks to organizations like The National Center for Accessible Media, a nonprofit dedicated to achieving media access for people with disabilities. Sony Entertainment Access Glasses with Audio, Ultra Stereo (USL), Dolby/Doremi, MoPix, and others are continually developing technologies from eyeglasses and seat reflectors that superimpose captions, to audio description headsets that don’t alter the experience for general audiences. These tools are often already installed in major theater chains nationwide.
6) Support Deaf film festivals: Deaf and/or disability-oriented film festivals that screen films with deaf characters often by deaf filmmakers exist throughout the world. Screening or partnering with festivals that consciously engage the Deaf Community can be a great way to develop your audience. Much like the mainstream circuit, once a film is well received by one festival, others around the world come calling. (White Space, for example, screened at: Toronto International Deaf Film Festival, Gebärdensprachfilmwoche Berlin Film Festival, Hong Kong International Deaf Film Festival, Cinedeaf Italy International Film Festival, Maine Deaf Film Festival, Seattle Deaf Film Festival, Cinema Touching Disability Film Festival, and several others.)
7) Make content accessible online: Captioning your film links online can make your content immediately available to a broader audience. Uploading a closed caption file to Vimeo or YouTube takes a little basic savvy and a minimal understanding of various caption file extensions but can actually be completed in a matter of minutes. Uploading your own closed captions is advantageous because the automation that some platforms offer doesn’t caption your content word for word. Consider also the benefit of knowing that viewers can screen your film with or without sound, enjoying the content at any time and in any situation (at work, on public transportation, etc.).
8) Find new friends and allies: Seek out allies in your community who are creating and distributing deaf-friendly content, as well as advocates in the Deaf Community. Organizations like Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD), and Deaf Professional Artists Network (D-PAN) are great resources.
9) Make an effort: You might make the occasional faux pas here or there. Learn from it and move forward. The Deaf Community is a vibrant culture in and of itself. As with any cultural community, you will find a diversity of experiences, politics, likes, and dislikes. Simply put, every deaf or hard of hearing person is not the same. For example, blind and deaf-blind audiences have unique accessibility needs beyond this list. Once you start exploring, you will likely attract resources and knowledge along the way. So at a minimum, try. Then try some more.
10) Advocate for accessibility: Often it doesn’t occur to hearing filmmakers or programmers to make their work available to deaf audiences. Even small adjustments can make film more inclusive. If your film has deaf characters, offer programmers and curators the option to screen the film with open captions and include your deaf cast members in Q & A or panel discussions with the aid of a certified interpreter. Consider screening open captioned versions of curated films, or even curate an open captioned program within your festival or series. You may not have it all figured out, but uncovering ways to include, acknowledge, and celebrate a more diverse audience-base benefits the entire filmmaking community.
Learn more about White Space here. Or view the trailer:
Editor’s note: The capitalization of Deaf Community is intentional as this is the preference of its members and advocates.