Why Accessibility Matters: Rinkoo Barpaga on Deaf Short Cinema and Intersectionality

An art-maker with a finger in most mediums — documentarian, playwright, street photographer, activist and stand-up comedian! — Rinkoo Barpaga curates his choice picks of contemporary Deaf short cinema (My Eye Is My Ear, streaming virtually Monday 18 January, 6pm) for this year’s LSFF.

He chats with us and our new access partners Subly on Deaf authenticity on screen, the Deaf experience in cinemas, and the importance of short filmmakers getting to grips with subtitling.

What does it mean to see Deafness represented authentically on film?

I think it’s really important for any representations of Deaf people to consider the concept of identity, and how this identity is entwined with Deafness.

For me personally, I wanted to raise the issue of racism in the Deaf community because that ties in closely with my identity as a Deaf person. As a curator, I have chosen work that goes further than only exploring issues around barriers that Deaf people face.

I’ve been particularly interested in films which look at the wider lives of Deaf people, about their relationships, about other challenges in their lives and glass ceilings they have to contend with.

What experiences or stories was it important for you to tell in My Eye Is My Ear?

The first film I picked is Here/Not Here, directed by Bim Ajadi. I chose this film because it explores hip-hop culture and uses Visual Vernacular. It showcases a broader concept of identity, and looks at people’s abilities and rivalries. I liked the idea of Deaf people being in tribes, and the conflict over finding your own space.

Sign Night looks at the current situation of isolation in lockdown. It was directed by Cathy Mager, an expert in the use of visual metaphor. Two Deaf women describe their experiences of being trapped at home and separated from one another, and mirrors stories of people performing and connecting from their balconies during lockdowns in China and Italy. I particularly enjoyed the beautiful poetic use of sign language. One of the most impactful metaphors of this film is that, by projecting the women onto separate buildings, they don’t need to describe their separation — you can see it.

Among Us, written and directed by Stephan Eigenmann, is about a young pianist whose world is turned upside down when she starts to become Deaf. Her world has been centred around her passion, playing music, and is part of her identity. We watch as she has to learn how to let go of this world.

SIGN NIGHT, dir. Cathy Mager

Dawn of the Deaf, directed by Rob Savage, is a subversion of mainstream horror. It tells a story of an infection that is spread through sound, meaning that only Deaf people are safe from it. I loved this concept. The deliberate use of small omissions in the subtitles means that hearing viewers can have the same experience as Deaf people who might miss small pieces of information through sound cues.

The title of the programme, My Eye Is My Ear, highlights the Deaf experience of accessing the world visually. What do you love most about telling stories in BSL?There are two things that I love about storytelling in BSL.

Firstly, I remember, when I was younger, subtitles weren’t available at the cinema and on TV. Deaf children would be at home with hearing family members, and watch films over the weekend.

We would all go back to school on a Monday morning, and Deaf children would describe what films they had seen in a beautiful, visual re-enactment. Watching these BSL retellings of the story could be as dynamic as seeing the film itself, through a lively recreation in 3D language.

This was a significant influencing factor in me becoming a stand-up comedian.

There is a wonderful parallel between filmmaking with Deaf translation and storytelling. For example, when Hollywood picks up a book by someone, they take in the story and can then create their own translation of the concept. This skill is also true of storytelling in BSL — a Deaf person watches a whole film, takes in the story, and then translates the concept.

In 2019, apparently only 3 out of 10 cinemas were offering screenings with subtitles. What are challenges faced by Deaf people in accessing cinema or the arts?

Speaking from my own experience, the main feeling is of disappointment. It has happened to me many times — you make plans with a group of friends, go out for a meal or for a few pints, and then buy your tickets and go in to see a film which was advertised as having subtitles. And then, the subtitles don’t come on.

We ask the staff to put the subtitles on, which it was supposed to have, and the answer is always “No, we can’t.” This spoils our plans and ruins our evening. This leads to me feeling disappointed, depressed, and withdrawn from a world I can’t access. Adding subtitles makes a very small difference to the film, and an enormous difference to me.

HIDEAWAY, dir. Samuel Ash

When new films are coming out, releasing trailers, adverts saying “Coming this Friday!”, I never feel excitement. I know I’ll have to wait at least two weeks to be able to go to a subtitled screening. It makes me feel like a second class citizen.

Has 2020’s shift to the online, with most art forms and festivals going virtual, eased this? And if so, how?

The shift to online arts means that events certainly could be made accessible quite easily, but that doesn’t mean they always are.

For example, YouTubers often rely on auto-generated closed captions, rather than accurate subtitling. Automatic closed-captions always have a huge number of errors, spelling mistakes, and wrong words in them. It can be very confusing trying to work out what the captions mean, and sometimes worse than not having them.

Video content would be much better if proper subtitles were created in advance, rather than automatically-generated.

Another example — I enjoy watching foreign language films on Netflix. For foreign language films, subtitles are automatically on throughout the film, but then if any English is spoken, the subtitles disappear — this always happens! This also makes me feel like a second class citizen. This situation could be easily improved.

My recommendation to any filmmaker would be to work on subtitles as an important part of making the film. Create proper, fully written subtitles to cover the whole of the film. This should cover more than just speech — subtitles that include sound effects are very important too. For example, when you’re watching a horror film, and someone hears something behind them, put this in the subtitles. This would mean that hearing and Deaf people can have the same experience watching the film.

After a rough 2020 for all, what are your hopes for the Deaf arts community in 2021?

Deaf arts haven’t previously been included in mainstream arts very much. My hope would be that Deaf arts can be included in large theatres, and big film festivals. I would like to see stories told that don’t just focus on feeling sympathy for poor Deaf people.

My other hope is about diversity. Through my artwork, I have been able to consider racism within the Deaf community. I would like to encourage people to consider the diversity of Deaf art. Many Deaf people have stories about their souls and life journeys that haven’t yet been told.

Selecting a play or film that has a Deaf person in isn’t enough, and isn’t the whole of their character. Think about including characters who are gay, and also Deaf, or an ethnic minority, and also Deaf. These artworks should be about more than just a person’s Deafness.

We’re pleased to be partnering with LSFF 2021 on access-proofing their festival.

We’re working hard with LSFF to have all short form, recorded and live content subtitled.

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