As a deafblind film critic, accessibility is everything

Michael McNeely in front of the Tornto International Film Festival banner

My name is Michael McNeely, and I am a deafblind film and accessibility critic based in Toronto, Canada. Upon hearing about the Accessible Film Project, I wanted to get involved and show my solidarity. Just like the filmmakers involved in the project, I too face my share of challenges with regards to watching and learning about films. However, I have found my way to being a film critic and to directing a short film with my friends here in Canada.

Getting into film

I wanted to major in Film Studies at university in my hometown (Queen’s University) but I was not able to take any courses in film due to a lack of subtitles. I have recently started taking private lessons in filmmaking in Toronto and have found that to be positively illuminating. I am able to do something that I previously thought myself unable to do. I have learned about many filmmaking techniques, such as the proximity problem, which is the challenge faced when you do not want to show that microphones are used on camera (but microphones are so necessary when working with spoken dialogue). I cannot tell you how cool even the simplest filmmaking concept is, and to be able to tell others I know it.

I have completed a film with a group of friends called Hold Music. It is a story about a person like me who is struggling to get theatre tickets for himself, his parents, and his boyfriend. Nothing goes according to plan in the film. The process of filmmaking has been a challenge. I have worked on this 11 minute film for about a year, and have learned about the necessity of moving on to other projects rather than attempt to perfect this film yet again. The work is never done and at some point you have to walk away! I would not be a director if it were not for the help of my wonderful friends and support persons. I am excited to hear about the results of the Accessible Film Project to learn about what others like me have been able to accomplish.

Access to subtitles and closed captions

My biggest issue as a film (and accessibility) critic is the provision of subtitles or closed captions, which I still have enough vision to read and require to understand most films. Getting subtitles is not an easy process, but it could be made easier if film companies put accessibility first. As an accessibility critic, I can ask companies or individuals why they have not considered the needs of people with disabilities, or what resources they are lacking in order to make their films more accessible. In Toronto, the majority of the theatres are run by Cineplex Entertainment, and they use the CaptiView device, owned now by Dolby. It is my hope that the use of the device will become more consistent and standardized over time. Not all films or auditoriums make use of this technology. I am curious why more independent cinemas do not use the CaptiView device – I have a feeling that the cost of acquiring and installing the equipment is prohibitive

As a film critic, the majority of my work can be found on Dork Shelf – a website for which I covered the Toronto International Film Festival (I saw over 55 films there, and wrote about 40 film reviews for Dork Shelf). All those films were made accessible to me in some way – whether it was English-language subtitles for a foreign film or (for just ONE time) the CaptiView device for an English-language film itself.

Cinema and being deafblind

For many, cinema is purely a visual realm. The purists will say that you need good vision to appreciate symmetry, balance, accord, and beauty. I once had a friend who believed that film criticism was purely an objective matter; subjectivity, such as feelings and emotions and even limited vision, had no place in film criticism.

I am deafblind and I consider myself a good film critic all the same.

What is required to be a good film critic? Firstly, a love and appreciation of film. Deafblind people can find this love, as long as the essence of film is made accessible. That is why we have subtitles and descriptive audio, and if we need other accommodations, we can get those too. Support persons could watch the film themselves and help describe what is happening on screen to their deafblind counterparts. Like any other context in which people with disabilities are accommodated – you just need to do things differently. It is my belief that with the proper supports, an experience can be presented to the deafblind film-goer that is just as ‘cinematic’ as the real thing.

Film, for me, is a chance to travel and to see other worlds other than my own; to be given access to places I would otherwise not go. This last year at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), I was able to witness stories from Brazil to Norway, Japan to Mali – sometimes even on the same day! This is faster than air travel and you get popcorn.

My intervenors (support persons), friends, and family assist me when I go to the movies in a number of ways. Firstly, they help me navigate the box office and crowds, and ensure that I am reasonably comfortable (of course, there is the odd four hour film I have had to sit through where NO ONE is comfortable by the end). Secondly, when the film is going on, people may take notes on matters that I may not be so quick to understand, such as distinguishing between similar-looking people or unclear dialogue (that is not subtitled). Sometimes I struggle with following action scenes, so those people I watch movies with know that I may need a blow-by-blow guide of the violence.

After the film, I may ask for others’ insights regarding what we just saw, but ultimately I form my own opinion. Have I seen this kind of story before? Were the characters engaging and realistic? Were all the plot threads satisfactorily resolved? Did the film take any big risks or be unconventional in any way? Did the film enrich my life in any way? Should others immediately drop what they are doing and ‘see’ this film?

Expressing my thoughts and experiences

In September, I advertised on Facebook that I was looking for a way to tell my experience about TIFF, a festival I have attended for more than five years now. I wanted to accurately depict the lows of inaccessibility (long lines, pushy crowds, not enough accessibility features in place etc.) and the highs of seeing a masterpiece you will remember for a long time (Amour, In the House, Like Father Like Son, Why Don’t You Go Play in Hell?, and so many others). Several people involved with the website, Dork Shelf, got interested in my story and my reviews, and my intervenor reached out to our national news network (CBC) – the rest is history, and I am hopeful to one day be able to cover more international film festivals.

If you are interested in writing about film, there are many opportunities out there – just put your feelers out! Do not let a lack of accessibility hinder you.

Read more about the Accessible Film Project, funded by the British Film Institute (BFI) Diversity Fund and follow the experiences of film making for people who are deafblind.

Author: Michael McNeely

Michael is a a film and accessibility critic who has Usher syndrome

5 thoughts on “As a deafblind film critic, accessibility is everything”

  1. Great post, Michael, so interesting!
    Thanks so much for your interest in the Accessible Film Project and such an insightful post about your experience with film.
    I would love to see your film Hold Music. Is it available online?

  2. Thank you.

    The film is screening at a film festival but I will share afterwards, around May.

  3. Hi Michael.

    Yes. Great blog. I was just doing some research and stumbled across this, and Kate’s comments above. I’ve just assisted Kate in one of her film projects at Touch Base. The same BFI project, I think. Recebtly, I have also been Poet in Residence at Joseph Clarke School, Center for excellence for visual impatient and complex needs. I edited/ curated the students poems into an anthology and Michael Rosen has written the book a glowing testimonial, which I’m thrilled about. It’s being released later this year, with an audio CD of their poems live, to be inclusive of those with no sight. I’d also love to see your film after it has finished at the film festival in May. I’m looking into a bigger research project, possibly my PhD incorporating VI / and deafblind arts and education. So be great for you to keep me updated with your projects.

    Best wishes,

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