The 2023 Sundance Film Festival is in full swing in Park City, Utah, but a recent premiere screening brought up continued questions of how accessible the festival is for those with disabilities, with Sundance CEO Joana Vicente acknowledging there is “more work to do” in an official statement.
During the premiere screening of Jonathan Majors’ latest film “Magazine Dreams” on Friday night, Sundance jurors for the U.S. Dramatic Competition category Marlee Matlin, Jeremy O. Harris, and Eliza Hittman walked out after the device that allows for closed captioning for Matlin malfunctioned and was not working.
Matlin, who is Deaf, left and, in solidarity with her, both Harris and Hittman followed. The device was repaired for the next screening and the jurors will screen the film at a later date.
A source with knowledge stressed that devices are tested repeatedly, and the device simply malfunctioned. Cell phone interference is known to cause glitches with this particular device.
Matlin and Harris declined to comment while Hittman’s representatives did not respond by press time.
After the incident ripped through social media, Sundance CEO Joana Vicente put out a statement that said: “Our goal is to make all experiences (in person and online) as accessible as possible for all participants. Our accessibility efforts are, admittedly, always evolving and feedback helps drive it forward for the community as a whole.
“The screening device used to provide closed captions did not work at one of our Friday evening premieres. The jury left so that they could see it together at another time during the Festival. Our team immediately worked with the devices in that venue to test them again for the next screening and the device worked without any malfunction.
“Our team has done extraordinary work in this area but there is always more work to do. We all still need to do more as we learn and consider the community at large.”
The jurors collectively put out a letter as well, in response to the incident. It said, in part: “The U.S. independent cinema movement began as a way to make film accessible to everyone, not just those with the most privileges among us. As a jury our ability to celebrate the work that all of you have put into making these films has been disrupted by the fact that they are not accessible to all three of us.”
The debate between open captions and closed captioning devices is a tale as old as time, with filmmakers often considering captions baked onto the screen as distracting. In a 2018 article this reporter wrote for IGN about issues that disabled filmgoers deal with at theaters, a common complaint was the difficulty in getting handheld captioning devices, called CaptiView in some theaters, to work.
Matlin, herself, has been a vocal proponent for more expansive captioning to make film accessible to everyone, regardless of hearing. In 2014 she pushed, alongside other Deaf organizations, to require streaming services like Netflix and Hulu to have closed captioning on their shows or risk fines similar to broadcast networks. The Academy Awards portal, where all the year’s FYC films are shown to AMPAS members, also has closed captions because of Matlin’s influence.