Film Festival for Blind Highlights France’s Accessibility Gap

By Patrick von Sychowski | April 8, 2015 4:13 am PDT

Paris is currently hosting its 6th annual film festival blind and visually impaired people at the UGC Gobelins cinema.

The event is arranged by l’Association Valentin Haüy (AVH) and this year sponsored by Luc Besson, whose films “Lucy” and “Taken 3” are being shown. However, France has a long way to go to widen accessibility for the wider cinema population, with only a small percentage of cinemas in the country equipped to show films with audio description.

This year a record 25 films with audio description are being shown at the festival, running from April 1st to the 14th, including  “La famille Bélier”, “L’Affaire SK1”, “Les combattants” and “Pourquoi j’ai pas mangé mon père.” Tickets to the 87 screenings are just €4 each, with the aim of making the festival accessible both technically and economically. Last year saw a record 2,116 attendees in total.

Luc Bessons message to this year’s festival was, “Access to culture for all and democratization are essential for me. My actions and commitments are all moving in this direction. Allowing the blind to see films is to act for a disability in a … more equal and solidaric way.”

AVH has been at the forefront of supplying audio-description services (AD) for films in France for the past 26 years. It has provided AD for over 600 films to date, with 43 films in 2014 alone, of which 18 were new releases shown in cinemas and 25 were archive digitisation, with over 100 projects completed that year.

Festival Audiovision
Posters for past editions of Festival Audiovision.

As reported in the festival’s target audience appeared to enjoy it very much:

Movies are screened as normal on the big screen. But in the theatre in a southern Paris district hosting the festival, the audience is wearing headphones hooked into a local network to hear blow-by-blow synchronised descriptions of the action happening before their un- or poor-seeing eyes.

“A pterodactyl swoops from the sky and pecks Edouard on the head,” narrates a voice in echo of a scene from the opening film shown on Wednesday: a new French animation comedy making light of prehistoric evolution, titled “Pourquoi j’ai pas mangé mon père” (Why I didn’t eat my father).

For the crowd of blind and partially blind school children in the theatre, the movie — and its added soundtrack — elicited laughs and giggles.

The festival is also sponsored by Sennheiser, which last year introduced its CinemaConnect smartphone app technology for cinema AD.

For an overview of the process of creating AD tracks in France, where it takes approximately one hour of work per minute of film, read this interview with Laure Morisset. The article also explains that AD emerged in the early 1970s, “under the leadership of the Dean of the University of San Francisco, August Coppola,” brother of Francis Ford Coppola.

Laure and her partner Frederick were also instrumental in lobbying government ministers and the audio-visual body CSA for the introduction of AD on France’s broadcast channels. In 2010 the largest channels (TF1, Canal+ and M6) were mandated to release one feature and one documentary per month in prime-time with AD. In 2013 this was increased to once a week. Public broadcaster  France Télévisions does its AD internally and has a target of 730 AD programmes by the end of 2015. France now has 20 people active in creating AD tracks.

However, exhibitors in France are falling behind in offering AD, not just compared to television but also compared to cinemas in other countries. Only 29% of French films released in cinemas last year in France had audio-description tracks (16% of all films according to AVH) and just 2% of theatres (40 in total) are equipped to play them back.

By way of comparison, YourLocalCinema claims that 300 cinemas in the UK are able to play back AD films, with more than 30 of them in Central London alone. A check of random Cineworld cinema in Aberdeen shows that pretty much every major movie was available in AD.

Costs at converting an auditorium to offer AD in France are put at between €4,000 and €6,000. Yet despite the low numbers there are signs of improvement, with 800 auditoriums (out of a total of around 5,241 in France) set to be fitted out for AD before then end of 2015. In the 120th year since the invention of cinema in France it is fitting, as Luc Besson points out, to make the 7th art form accessible to all.

Patrick von Sychowski
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