Superfest Disability Film Festival highlights Blackness, Blindness, impact of audio description services

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Superfest, the longest running disability-focused film festival in the world, ran from Oct. 16-18 this year. First on the lineup was Jeff M. Giordano’s documentary “The God Given Talent: The Creative Life of Charles Curtis Blackwell,” a 70-minute documentary that won the Superfest 2020 Disability Justice Award. 

The film takes an intriguing look at the life of the titular Blind Oakland-based visual artist and poet, who splits his time between California and Mississippi. After drinking from a water fountain at the age of 9 and looking up to see the sign “No Negroes, Whites only,” his innocence is shattered, and he realizes what the adults in his life have been talking about.

Blackwell’s visual art is striking, along with his lyrical jazz poetry; his poetry readings are often accompanied by a jazz musician. But there is also powerful storytelling in the poems: One of his most compelling lines says, “Gave me a sense of belonging and a sense of longing.” He blends John Coltrane jazz with laments of racism, mourning the gentrification of his beloved Oakland. As Curtis points out in the movie, he chooses to fight racism with a pen instead of violence. 

His Blindness began during his college years, and the viewer comes to appreciate the tumultuous journey of navigating life when the privilege of being able-bodied is suddenly taken away from you. The movie shows how this lack of access is the stark, everyday reality for many in the disabled community.

The film screening was followed by a panel discussion, “Disability, Blackness and Representation: A Conversation with Black Disabled People in Filmmaking.” Panelists included Blackwell, writer and producer of “Vision Portraits” Rodney Evans, host and producer of “Reid My Mind” radio show Thomas Reid and actor and filmmaker Diana Elizabeth Jordan. The conversation was moderated by Andraea LaVant, the impact producer of “Crip Camp.” 

During the panel discussion, Blackwell elaborated on his transition, noting his struggles with self-esteem and realizing he had a talent that could be an inspiration to other people. “I moved from that point of giving up and losing hope and moving to a plane of being assertive and creative and a moving force,” Blackwell said.

While a number of critical issues around Blackness, disability and representation in the media were discussed, what stood out was the discourse around audio description, or AD. AD is an important accessibility feature for the Blind community, just as close captioning is for the Deaf. The film screening ran with the AD feature turned on, which presents a different perspective for any viewers unfamiliar with the experience. 

The audio description in this film, however, feels somewhat lacking — ironic, considering the story centers on Blindness and disability. There are a few instances when there seems to be an overlap of the AD and the film’s narration, scenes that have no AD or where the AD fails to capture a scene’s nuances. So, it leaves the audience to question the experience of a viewer who is Blind and looking to this film for encouragement. Going forward, more thought is needed in creating AD that is useful as an accessibility feature. 

The panelists were able to offer further insightful comments on AD. Reid explained that good AD provides access to the visuals without stepping on the dialogue; it allows the Blind consumer to have an experience that is as close to sighted as possible. He was critical of the mention of race being left out of AD, as in the current practice, it defaults character descriptions to white. 

Evans too feels that the current level of AD in the industry is almost motonal, devoid of emotion. He heard UC Berkeley’s professor Georgina Kleege, who is also of the Blind community, speak on the need for AD in the creative filmmaking process. Evans has taken Kleege’s advice and he does not farm out the process, deeply involved throughout. He thinks of AD as “poetry,” and the visuals it provides truly serve to pair visual images and language in a way that all people can appreciate.

Contact Hari Srinivasan at [email protected]g.