I was born three months premature, and with my early arrival came a pile of complications that led me to suffer from a condition called retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). It causes blindness, or visual impairment, from an early age.
I’ve been registered with the National Council for the Blind of Ireland (NCBI) since birth. I would describe myself as visually impaired, but my registration reads “legally blind”. So I can’t drive a car, operate heavy machinery, or ride a bicycle on public roads.
It may seem strange, then, that my principal interest in life is cinema.
On paper, my condition reads as severe, but for me it’s the only life I’ve ever known and I make the most of the vision I have.
My real-world life is fuzzy and soft-edged, but I tend not to wear glasses unless my eyes get tired.
At the cinema, the world is crystal clear and richly detailed. I sit at a medium distance so as to take in a full view of the screen. The things that I have difficulty making out in the real world – faces, signs, and fine details – are easy to take in when they’re 50 feet tall.
For me, cinema is the gateway to the rich and detailed view of the world that those more fortunate than myself experience every day. The movies are an escape to reality.
Recently, an NCBI newsletter mentioned a new push by the Irish Film Institute (IFI) to make film more accessible. Accessibility covers a wide range of experiences; films can be viewed with open captioning or audio description.
Départure, a drama from director Andrew Steggall, opened at the IFI on 20 May. I went along, planning to experience the film as a blind viewer might. I closed my eyes for the duration of the screening.
Watching, or rather listening to, Départure with audio description was strange at first. It’s difficult for the narrator to describe everything that’s happening, the sequence is reduced to its bare essentials in order to avoid getting in the way of the film’s dialogue.
One sequence sees the lead character, Eliott, submerged in a deep pool of water, the narration describes this sequence plainly, but in viewing the sequence the audience picks up on the imagery reflecting Eliott’s sexual awakening.
Describing a sequence such as this in detail clashes with audio description’s mission to make the experience as seamless as possible for the audience.
When we watch a film, our brains process a lot of visual information along with the sounds and music. Without this visual component, an art-house film such as Départure, described by some outlets as “navel gazing”, becomes straightforward, less art-house, and, to a certain extent, more welcoming to a general audience.
A little about the film itself.
Départure focuses on a troubled English family holidaying in the South of France, they are traveling to the family’s long-serving holiday home for the last time. It’s not a pleasant vacation situation.
Elliot (Alex Lawther), 15, becomes infatuated with Clémont (Phénix Brossard), a handsome French adolescent with similar family baggage.
Elliot’s mother Beatrice (Juliet Stevenson) also takes to Clémont, which is met with disapproval from her son. Elliot and Beatrice’s relationship reaches its lowest ebb and their shaky family structure begins to fall away completely.
It was only after the screening when I scanned promotional material and reviews that I learnt how good-looking the film was supposed to be.
With audio description, the scenes, characters, and their actions, were presented simply. This did not take away from the drama or my overall level of engagement. The film rolled like a well-produced radio play.
After it ended, an older gentleman, Eric, told me that he had enjoyed the film and audio description, as he often does at other cinemas around the city. A friend of his, a sighted gentleman, said he now now prefers audio description screenings as it helps him to follow the plot more closely.
A middle-aged woman, who sat with arms crossed, told me that even with audio description she couldn’t make head or tail of the film. That was probably a result of scripting, rather than the quality of the audio, though, she said.
All of the people I spoke to after the screening had good things to say about the audio-description experience.
With the help of Tracy Penston, the administrator with the NCBI, I surveyed mailing list users about the usefulness of audio description in their entertainment lives.
There was a significant interest in the IFI’s accessibility programme and in audio descriptions in general. Many of the NCBI’s mailing-list subscribers use audio description to watch television every day.
Providing audio description is easier than ever with digital television signals allowing for multiple audio tracks. One guy who responded, Barry, complained of RTÉ’s lack of programming with audio descriptions.
“Eastenders has it. I don’t want to watch Eastenders,” he said.
The RTÉ list of programmes with audio description includes: Holby City, Casualty, Doctors, Eastenders, Love/Hate, The Fall and Clean Break. If you enjoy soaps, you’re in luck. If not, look elsewhere.
(RTÉ didn’t respond to a query about this by the time this article was published.)
Another mailing list subscriber, Theia, said she was frustrated that DVD menus don’t provide easy access to audio description. She was enthusiastic about the accessibility programme, although she expressed some concerns about ease of access to the IFI via a safe walking route.
Fortunately for Barry, Theia and the other NCBI members who contacted me, the IFI says it will continue to put on accessible screenings.
The institute’s head of education, Alicia McGivern, said that the accessibility programme is part of a concerted effort to provide as many screenings as possible.
The IFI makes films available with audio description when it is possible to do so. But many of the films shown at the institute are from smaller studios, so not all of them have audio description and open captions baked into their digital cinema package (the hard disk drive that contains the film used with digital projectors).
So some months may have more than others. Recent releases Sing Street and Départure screened with accessibility options. But, so far, no films in the June programme provide audio description as part of the screening.
McGivern said that many of the multiplex cinemas show the latest releases with audio description and other accessibility options. So even if you can’t see Ingmar Bergman with audio description, you can see the latest Roland Emmerich picture, a consolation of sorts.
The Départure screening, and my exploration of audio description in general, has reminded me that most of the time, the aspects of a film that we most relate to are story and characters. Audiences like to be told a story. Everyone likes to feel the magic of cinema, that great “empathy machine”.
Now, with the wider adoption of accessibility standards in the multiplexes and the art houses, it’s easier than ever before to enjoy films big and small.