Friday, March 30, 2007

Movies for the visually impaired!

The blind and visually impaired can get much more out of television shows and movies with the help of audio description, where the on-screen action is described verbally. But Germany is lagging behind the UK in making films and TV accessible.

Red carpet, bronze trophies, exotic canapés -- at first sight, the award ceremony in the atrium of the Deutsche Bank in Berlin looked like any other swish film event. But the Braille characters on the invitations and the Golden Retriever guide dog mingling in the crowd revealed that this was no ordinary occasion.

The Deutscher Hörfilmpreis award is awarded to films which particularly help the blind.Last week's Deutscher Hörfilmpreis (German Audio Description Prize), which is organized by the German Federation of Blind and Visually Impaired People (DBSV), paid tribute to achievements in the field of audio description -- describing visual information in a film or television show on an extra audio track for the visually impaired.

The event, which was attended by illustrious guests like German President Horst Köhler -- whose own daughter has a visual impairment -- and veteran German actor Mario Adorf, billed itself as a mini-Oscar with a social message. Sighted guests were given special glasses with plastic lenses that mimicked a visual impairment, so they could experience being partially sighted for themselves.

At the awards, two trophies -- each weighing a hefty six pounds -- went to the regional broadcaster Central German Broadcasting (MDR) and the German low-budget film "Netto" for applying audio description to their productions. The MDR, a public service broadcaster, has added audio descriptions to all of its in-house TV movies and series since 2002.

"You never know who shot whom"

"A tall man, dressed in dirty overalls, quietly sneaks into Jane's house. She is doing aerobics in her upstairs bedroom, blissfully unaware as the man creeps silently, toe by toe, up the staircase, looking left to right."

The above example, taken from a
BBC guide to audio description, demonstrates the extra dimension audio description provides for the blind and visually impaired. Thomas Nicolai, a visually impaired journalist, says that it helps him follow the plot of a film without having to rely on the explanations of sighted people. "Otherwise you're left in the dark," he says. "You never know who shot whom." And, he adds, it enables him to participate in conversations about television events or films.

Although jurors at the film awards spoke with optimism about increasing access to culture for blind and visually impaired people, there is still a long way to go. According to Deutsche Hörfilm gGmbH, a non-profit organization which makes visual media accessible for the visually impaired, 155,000 people in Germany are blind while a further 500,000 are visually impaired.

And although 80 percent use television as their primary medium for information or entertainment, their needs are not well served. On any given evening, there only one or two programs with audio description on air in Germany, bringing the annual total to a mere 546 -- including repeats.

According to audio description author Holger Buck, the situation is even worse when it comes to the silver screen: less than 10 films are screened with audio descriptions in Germany per year. DVDs offer a slightly broader choice: there are currently between 35 and 40 audio-described titles available, including classics like "Chinatown" or recent German productions such as the 2006 soccer World Cup documentary "Germany -- A Summer's Tale."


German President Horst Köhler (r) congratulates "Netto" director Robert Thalheim at the Deutscher Hörfilmpreis.Having such a limited choice can be frustrating, says Thorsten Wolf, who has been blind from infancy. "I'm not so much into TV crime series," he says. "I would like to be able to go to the cinema more often." But even in Berlin, this is difficult: there are only two movie theatres which have the necessary technology to screen films with audio description.

Creative potential

Some feel that audio description could benefit sighted people, too. Film researcher Gerhard Lechenauer thinks that the extra narration could be used as a tool to guide the viewer to more selective viewing. He is, however, concerned about the dry and objective language in audio description: "How do you solve the problem of different colors or atmospheres?" he wonders.

Andreas Heinecke, who runs the popular Hamburg exhibition "Dialogue in the Dark" also believes that those who can see can gain much from engaging with disability. "In my eyes, disabled people are the social avantgarde," he says. He talks with enthusiasm about the creative potential that the encounter between the two groups can have.

The success of his seven-year-old exhibition, subtitled "An Exhibition to Discover the Unseen," proves him right. Each year, 500,000 visitors come to experience the unusual concept, where blind people guide sighted visitors through darkened rooms to experience smells, temperatures or sounds.

Not enough commitment

Still, there is not enough public commitment to promoting access to blind and visually impaired people, thinks Bernd Benecke, who works for the public broadcaster Bavarian Broadcasting as Germany's only specialist audio description editor. "Everybody is always very much in favor of the idea but when it comes to giving money, the enthusiasm quickly fades away," he says.

In Germany, audio transcription -- which costs €4,500-5,000 ($6,000-6,660) per film -- is primarily funded by public broadcasters and sponsors, as there is no direct state support. The total sum invested, estimates Benecke, is only between €500,000 and €1 million per year -- practically small change when one considers that a single episode of a television crime series can cost €2 million.
The lack of political commitment is also reflected in the half-hearted political discussions about audio transcription.

Even though German Culture Minister Bernd Neumann said at the Hörfilmpreis awards that audio description needs to be promoted, Germany still lacks clear political guidelines about audio description, such as the quotas which other European countries have adopted. "There are many 'should haves' and 'could haves,'" says Benecke with a sigh.

Accessible Britain

He points to Great Britain as a role model: on television, a dynamic quota -- currently 8 percent -- for the main channels ensures that a set proportion of all TV programming is shown with audio description. Accessible DVDs and videos, too, are much more plentiful in the United Kingdom: the BBC lists over 150 titles of DVDs with audio description, including blockbusters like "Borat", "Casino Royale" or "Pretty Woman." Visually impaired cinephiles are also catered for: around 8 out of 10 films released each week have audio description and 160 cinemas across the country hold accessible screenings, according to the BBC.

Audio description is increasingly being adapted for theatre, too. Although there are only a couple of productions per year, they are very popular, with blind and visually impaired theatre fans often traveling long distances to attend performances. Nicolai, the visually impaired journalist, traveled over 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Berlin to Osnabrück to see an audio-described version of Goethe's "Faust" -- but he says it was well worth it.

"It was a great experience," he says. "These events are so special that people make huge efforts to go there, no matter how much time and money it costs."


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