Be Natural Needs to Be Accessible

Review of Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018)

Old black and white photo of a sign on wall inside an industrial space that says BE NATURAL.
The sign at Alice Guy-Blaché’s Solax Studio in the US. She wanted her actors to remember this guideline in order to avoid the overacting so common in films during the silent era.

 

Six years ago, I made a pledge to a Kickstarter campaign for the documentary Be Natural. There have been some bumps in the road for supporters, which is to be expected for a passion project, I suppose: some of the perks never arrived, some were disappointing, and some have yet to arrive (promised post–home video release). It seems creators Pamela Green and Jarik van Sluijs had more success in the campaign and developments with the film than they had anticipated. I applaud them. They’ve brought a major project to fruition.

However, when I finally got to see it at one of only three Toronto screenings, I was underwhelmed. This was mostly due to its inaccessibility but also its overall direction. Then I learned more about the premise of Alice being “discovered” by the filmmakers. I’d like to share some thoughts on this film because I’ve yet to see a review online that wasn’t bursting at the seams with enthusiasm, and I think some balance in its reception is merited.

Robert Redford and narrator Jodie Foster are listed as two of the executive producers, which gives it some cachet, I expect. However, direction by Green is problematic. As a backer, I got to see teasers and contacted the production company about issues with the subtitling as it stood then; I did not get a reply. The final product is less than accessible to several groups of people.

The music is far too loud and drowns out other elements, making it hard to follow the extremely fast pace of the doc. There are some interesting ideas for indicating sources—for example, audio tape via a little icon in the corner of the screen—but often these are more cute than necessary, adding clutter to a busy screen; I found it hard to watch such indicators, plus maps, dynamic travel routes, superimposed pictures and image captions, and subtitles. The viewer must be resigned to picking and choosing what information they want to take in, which is a shame because it’s quite interesting.

I wish I could have acted as a consultant for them on the function and form of effective captions and subtitles. In fact, there are no captions at all for the film because of the overcrowded shots, so right off the bat the film is not available to Deaf, deaf, or hard of hearing viewers, or any other group who uses captions. Also, the subtitles are full of bad line breaks and inconsistencies. The worst practice is when the text was deemed worthy to highlight, it is often presented in a cursive font in paragraph form across the width of the screen, making it difficult to read, particularly as there is a great deal of figured background used. Also, the reading speed required for the longer excerpts is too high given the font and form. Accessibility to the French audio is therefore very poor through the subtitling.

Black and white still showing 2-line subtitle with far too many characters/words per line

The other unfortunate directorial choice made is the pace of the overall contents. Understandably, the creators wanted to share as much of Alice’s history as possible within the time available, and the story is fascinating. But too much of the search efforts are shown, so that clips from Alice’s films that are highlighted are on-screen for about one second (maybe two seconds) each. In that time, the viewer has to take in the visual and the captioned title and date before they are on to another example; a series of these make it impossible to really learn much about the films Guy-Blaché made, which I would have thought was a major goal of the documentary. So, the information itself is often inaccessible.

This is the type of film that would have benefited from subtitle editing (and captioning), and it could have been done if a director of accessibility and translation had been consulted, as recommended by Pablo Romero-Fresco. As it stands, there are multiple barriers to the documentary.

But that’s only what I gleaned from watching it. I’ve since learned that, in fact, Alice’s history has been under our noses all along. (Note to self: do your homework before backing on Kickstarter.) It turns out that there have been a few documentaries made about her already, including a 1996 Canadian doc and an eponymous 1997 German one. There’s also a book about her, Alice Guy-Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema by Alison McMahan (2003). And there is no lack of knowledge and discussion about her in academia or the blogosphere/internet. So, the hype of discovering Alice is misplaced.

Alice’s life is an interesting topic to cover in a documentary film, to be sure, but Be Natural seems a bit meta, focusing more on Green’s journey to find Alice than being excited to share the story in a well-paced exposition of Alice’s story. I came away feeling I had missed a lot of the audio and visual in it and retained bare bones. Another audience member asked me afterwards if I remembered the location of the Solax studio, and we decided we’d have to google it when we got home. (It was Fort Lee, New Jersey.)

I feel like the film festival and critical hype is due to others not having done their homework, either. It’s a nice film, but it’s not earth-shattering in form or as provenance. Since it’s so hard to find screenings, why not find some clips of her films on YouTube or watch this introduction to Alice Guy-Blaché on Vimeo? The captions here aren’t perfect either, but the video allows you the time to appreciate the creative and technical contributions Alice made in a man’s industry a hundred years ago.

PS: I did have to laugh at one clip that was shown long enough to take in. In the 1913 A House Divided, about a separated couple living together, there’s some acrimony. Plus ça change…

 


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Book Review: The Routledge Handbook of Audiovisual Translation

Abstract watercolour spheres as decoration of textbook,  The Routledge Handbook of Audiovisual TranslationEdited by Luis Pérez-González as part of the Routledge Handbooks in Translation and Interpreting Studies series, this new book is textbook material but is still accessible to the nonacademic with an interest in audiovisual translation.

I spent my first two years of university studying translation and linguistics and, in hindsight, now regret not having stayed in that stream. While my work focuses on the end steps of the AVT process (whether subtitles or captions/SDH), I’m still interested in language and how it is not as discrete from the technical production process as most people think. Scholarly work in this area is being taken more seriously as the field has now been accepted as a bona fide academic discipline.

Because they were brought up by so many of the 32 leading scholars who contributed essay-chapters, I’d like to discuss the main themes I noted: changes in technology, obviously, but also inclusion, exclusion, and changes in quality standards (the latter being my favourite aspect, of course).

The book provides some history in terms of subtitles, captions, and translation in cinema and discusses some of the software options currently available. It’s interesting that where Alina Secară’s part (p.139, 141) mentions eyeglass development as a means of caption delivery, even that area is changing quickly as we saw in October 2018 with the National Theatre in London’s introduction of Smart Caption Glasses by Epson. There is also a return (for me) to some concepts I read about in books I reviewed and interviewed authors about, such as Nornes’s thoughts on abusive subtitling (p.460) and Dwyer’s on prosumers (p.442) and the politics of fansubbing.

There seems to be a tension between the inclusion and exclusion that can be found in AVT. As I understand it, inclusion involves the performativity (p.446) and widespread participation by various factions (p.419, 438, 442). Sometimes the work is done by collectives on Viki or Amara, for example, and sometimes by fewer contributors, such as individual YouTubers—whether it’s their own content or someone else’s. The idea of prosumerism is covered not only by Dwyer but also Díaz-Cintas (p.31), Pérez-González (p.31) and Jones (p.187). Dwyer introduced me to the element of play being part of the performativity (p.446), and it took me this second crack at the literature to understand the degree to which AVT not only involves various politics (e.g. participation) but also the economics of the social contracts that are understood in many unofficial or unsanctioned undertakings. Localization straddles the areas of inclusion and exclusion, both as an “act of homage” (p.446) but also a kind of bowdlerization, such as the de-anglicization of text in Harry Potter for an American audience (Guillot on Nornes’s corrupt domestication, p.38).

But all is not warm and fuzzy. There is exclusion that is perhaps inevitable with AVT. In her discussion of music-video fansubbing, Johnson (p.421) cites Pérez-González and the “widespread assumptions of the dominance of English in globalizing process.” Dwyer (p.441) talks about the “global language politics and hierarchies” by netizens or global citizens. In her chapter on AVT and activism, Baker notes that not only fansubbers but also most subtitlers and captioners are not credited, or at least work unappreciated, in anonymity or invisibility (Baker, p.456–57). In my own advocacy efforts, which call for subtitle and caption editing to be recognized by film awards as much as other technical contributions like sound editing, I will give shout outs to excellent translations for film (such as in Les Innocentes, 2016; I can’t find my original post praising the subtitler anymore, so if anyone knows their name, please contact me!). I don’t understand why title designers are front and centre, but the professionals who made the audience’s comprehension of the dialogue accessible aren’t considered worthy of a credit line. Secară (p.138) also quotes Rondin’s discussion of smart glasses as a solution “without interfering with the overall show.” Maybe this is just my politics, but it always sounds like providing caption users with the technology to take part in this cultural content is a pain in the ass and must not disturb the public, such as the public’s general distaste for open captioning, unfortunately supported by a deaf person in a recent piece. From what I hear in Deaf social circles and forums, the expectation isn’t perfection, just something that’s effective (not craptions, for example). Captioning excellence seems like it shouldn’t require advocacy for improvement. It’s not like we accept mediocrity in the latest smartphones. Anyway, that’s a jump I made in my thinking.

Of course, what I was most thrilled by were the chapters where AVT training and teaching are addressed and what the future of quality assurance will involve with legislation. For instance, here, the Accessible Canada Act (ACA) is forthcoming, and the AODA is in place, but my Twitter feed is full of justified complaints by people of all types of disabilities because standards on paper and actual, informed enforcement are not the same thing. Merchán’s chapter (29) about training and McLoughlin’s (30) about teaching and learning made me hopeful. I was thrilled to read about Ken Loach and his rejection of the traditional AVT-as-postproduction model because budgets don’t plan or allow for quality subtitling/captioning, and Liz Crow (p.506) seeing accessibility as integral to the production process rather than a lowly add-on. Pablo Romero-Fresco has a book coming out shortly, Accessible Filmmaking Guide (London, BFI), which I couldn’t be more excited about (and he’s graciously agreed to an interview with me once I’ve read it). Study of filmmaker/subtitler collaboration by the University of Roehampton and programs like the MA in filmmaking at Kingston University (London) addressing accessibility and AVT as par for the course also give me hope. I’m currently trying to impress upon colleges near me the importance of caption editing being taught as a foundational course and program requisite because all the ACAs and equivalents in the world aren’t going to eradicate the problem of craptions (as inaccessibility) if filmmakers aren’t taught the soft skills now. I can’t figure out why more postsecondary institutions aren’t scrambling to implement this, particularly when they advertise accessibility production as one of their training outcomes. Mohawk College’s Accessible Media Production is the only program where I can see the genesis of serious application to this in their curriculum.

I loved the quotation of Marleau from 1982 that Secară concludes her chapter with (p.142)—and here surtitling could easily be replaced by subtitling: “…surtitling and captioning services are not to be regarded as ‘un mal necessaire’ [sic] (‘a necessary evil’).” I’ve attempted to walk the walk in my rhetoric about this and have launched an award for excellence in captioning in the hope that we will raise more Loaches and Crows who will see captioning excellence as one of the foundational stones in the building of a film, and not as a requirement remembered just as the student is about to hit Send. The d/Deaf, hard of hearing, and many other types of caption users are not dismissible, and as I’ve written before, I’m not going to shut up about it. Fortunately, inquiries about the award from filmmakers are heartening: there is will—but also many barriers remain.

Pérez-González’s edited collection of essays by some of the top scholars in audiovisual translation today—for me—is summarized best in Romero-Fresco’s position that AVT services are an afterthought at best. He notes that the United Nations’ ITU Focus Group on Media Accessibility and filmmakers such as Tarantino and Iñárritu are trying to influence, respectively, the profession and the process by being involved in subtitling (p.510). I don’t see change being swift, but I hope that ten years from now we will see improvements in quality via subtitle and caption editing. Meanwhile, The Routledge Handbook of Audiovisual Translation  gives the student, academic, professional, and interested lay reader an excellent idea of the lay of the land in AVT. It will be interesting to see what has—and hasn’t—changed in education, standards, and enforcement by the time a second edition is published.

 

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