jurors for SundanceThe US Dramatic Competition abandoned the premiere of “Dreams Magazine” on Friday night over an incident where the festival failed to provide proper subtitles for deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members, including the jury. Marlee Matlin.
The members of the dramatic jury, consisting of Jeremy O. Harris, Eliza Hittman, and Matlin, decided to collectively withdraw from the film as it began after a closed captioning device provided to Matlin failed to work. While the device was fixed hours later, it highlighted a bigger problem that has been playing out behind the scenes regarding the festival’s ability to make films accessible to all viewers. The festival said the jury members intend to screen the film as a group before Sundance ends.
According to multiple sources, the jury has repeatedly expressed concerns to both Sundance and the filmmakers that films showing at this year’s festival should have open subtitles. At other international festivals, including Cannes and Venice, films are subtitled in multiple languages on screen. This year’s credentials application for Sundance asked attendees if they needed access to closed captioning.
However, multiple sources claim that several filmmakers have turned down the request to provide open captioning on screen, citing the costs and time associated with making another copy. Sources say that some buyers even suggested that including subtitles on the screen could somehow hurt the selling prices of the film in the market while they try to distribute the film.
Amid the “Magazine Dreams” controversy, the jury sent a signed letter to the filmmakers at the festival begging them to allow “open caption DCP” prints to be shown.
“We have all traveled to Utah to celebrate independent film and those who dedicate their lives to making them,” read a copy of the letter obtained by variety. “It’s exciting to sit in a room with other people who love movies and cheer them on together, and Sundance has been an important place for each of us to do that throughout our varied careers. The independent film movement in the US began as a way to make cinema accessible to everyone, not just the more privileged among us. As a jury, our ability to celebrate the work that all of you have put into making these films has been interrupted by the fact that they are not accessible to all three of you.”
In response to the incident, Sundance CEO Joana Vicente provided a statement: “Our goal is to make all experiences (in-person and online) as accessible as possible for all attendees. It’s true that our accessibility efforts are constantly evolving, and feedback helps drive them forward for the community as a whole.”
Sundance has gone to great lengths in the past to accommodate people with various disabilities as part of its stated mandate of inclusion. This year, two ASL interpreters joined the festival leadership and filmmakers on stage for opening remarks and post-screening Q&A sessions.
In 2020, the festival ensured that “Crip Camp” co-director James Lebrecht, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, was able to attend major events, including the film’s premiere. Sources say the festival tried to get around the “Magazine Dreams” team’s refusal to provide subtitles and gave Matlin alternative technology, which didn’t work. The first start time was delayed 45 minutes. A source says the postponement was due to a technical issue, but it’s unclear if it was related to subtitles.
It’s not immediately clear if other movies will now allow on-screen subtitles after this mishap.
“Magazine Dreams” is directed by Elijah Bynum and centers on a black amateur bodybuilder, played by Jonathan Majors, who struggles to find a human connection.
Read the full statement from Sundance CEO Vicente:
“Our goal is to make all experiences (in person and online) as accessible as possible for all participants. It’s true that our accessibility efforts are constantly evolving, and feedback helps drive them forward for the community as a whole.
“The projection device used to provide closed captioning did not work at one of our Friday night premieres. The jury left so they could see it together at another time during the Festival. Our team immediately worked with the devices at that location to test them again for the next screening and the device worked without any malfunctions.
“Our team has done an extraordinary job in this area, but there is always more work to be done. We all still have more to do as we learn and consider the broader community.”