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Guest Column: How the Use of Open Captions Can Enhance Creativity, Not Just Accessibility



A year ago, amid CODA’s groundbreaking run on the awards circuit, writer/director Sian Heder frequently expressed her hopes that the film’s success could be one of the “rocks that start the avalanche” of the wealth of talent that exists within the Deaf community, heralding a new wave of deaf talent in Hollywood not only in front of but behind the camera as well.

Delbert Whetter

Delbert Whetter

Courtesy of Rick Guidotti

One of the boldest statements to portend such an avalanche comes through deaf writer-director Alison O’Daniel’s experimental docudrama. The Tuba Thieves, which screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival’s “innovative, forward-thinking” NEXT program. Whereas cinema frequently portrays life for deaf and hard of hearing people as wholly divorced from sound and music, implying a tragic deficit in their human cultural experience, O’Daniel turns this trope on its head. Her cinematic journey of sound, music and silence deftly weaves a subtle thread through a tapestry of scenic but seemingly disparate moments and character stories centered around a rash of tuba thefts from schools across Southern California from 2011 to 2013. From there, the film branches out. in unexpected directions with vignettes of ordinary people in the region, some with seemingly little connection to the heists but, upon closer examination, unified by the presence of silence, sound or music in their lives: deaf musicians working in a sound engineering booth, the impact of noise pollution from the newly-constructed LAX airport on a nearby community, a deaf social gathering in which one person relates in ASL an injury that was caused by sonic booms from fighter aircrafts conducting military exercises in his neighborhood.

At points in the film, we are treated to a superb and visually engrossing rendition of visual poetry in ASL that appears nothing less than world-class in the hands of seasoned stalwart performer Russell Harvard and renowned deaf sound artist Christine Sun Kim. (The cast, led by newcomer Nyeisha “Nyke” Prince and actor Warren “Wawa” Snipe, is exceptional and proves once again that deaf and disabled actors represent a vast and deep wellspring of talent to be tapped.) The Tuba Thieves challenges the audience to re-evaluate what it means to experience sound and music in cinema. As a deaf person who has sat patiently through countless music performances, I derived a perverse satisfaction watching a scene recreating the 1952 premiere of John Cage’s 4’33”, in which a hearing audience sits in extended silence through a soundless piano performance. That moment is contrasted elsewhere in the film with the rambunctious experience of deaf people enjoying a live concert. As one character relates about the true-story event of Prince putting on a free concert for students at all-deaf Gallaudet University, “He just gets that everybody likes music.”

Through a perspective that can only come from someone whose relationship with sound is distinctively unique, O’Daniel provocatively explores immersive sound and silence, accompanied by striking visual cinematography that utilizes kinetic (color, creative transitions, motion) and Brilliantly detailed open captions That reminds us just how important audio information – and the manner in which it is communicated – is for all who enjoy cinema.

Watching plants vibrate in sync with the score (“Rather than add music to images, I added the images to the sound [of Kim’s voice],” O’Daniel told me). The speed of percussive beats. Noting the source of sounds — bird, truck engine or airplane — and whether the sound is a thump, rumble or a “zhzhzhzh.” Fully captioned Spanish song lyrics in their full power and glory (none of the simplistic and almost insulting descriptive captions of “[singing]” or “[singing in Spanish]” are used here). None of it feels superfluous. All is relevant.

While The Tuba Thieves is an example of how open captions can play a role in not only ensuring access for all but also adding to a film’s aesthetic (which 11-time Oscar nominee Everything Everywhere All at Once also accomplished through its mind-bending use of subtitles and graphic text), another incident during this year’s Sundance festival served as a stark reminder that progress is neither swift nor comes in a straight line. The captioning devices did not work during the premiere of US Dramatic Competition title Magazine Dreamscausing a jury member, CODA star Marlee Matlin, to be unable to watch the film, which in turn provoked a walk-out by all the jurors.

This incident is a harsh admonition that there is so much more work to be done and many more barriers to break down. The modern-day theatrical closed captioning system, which initially held promise by offering deaf and hard of hearing consumers freedom to watch films at a time and place of their choosing, is fundamentally broken, with its outdated technology and obscenely high failure rate. Many deaf and hard of hearing filmgoers are left to wonder whether the theatrical experience will ever be as welcoming an experience for them as the silent film era once was.

Imbued by the vision of Sundance’s NEXT program, The Tuba Thieves offers inventive and progressive cues that the festival would be prudent to recognize, proving that accessibility doesn’t come at the cost of artistry but rather elevates art in a way that allows it to reach broader audiences more deeply. One such example is open captions that serve not only the deaf and hard of hearing moviegoer but also those who find it difficult to follow dialogue, possess English as a second language or find themselves easily distracted by sound effects.

It is my hope that through this film, filmmakers will be challenged to consider how audio and visual information in cinema can be communicated in many different forms that benefit — rather than detract from — the cinematic experience.

Delbert Whetter is a deaf producer, Vice Chair of the Board of RespectAbility, whose senior vp of communications and entertainment & news media Lauren Appelbaum contributed to this op-ed. Whetter and Appelbaum are the founders of RespectAbility’s Lab for Entertainment Professionals With Disabilities.

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