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Embodying Accessibility: Six Tips for Incorporating Access Into Your Filmmaking

By Set Hernandez

Behind-the-scenes photo inside a house. Pedro sits in front of the camera with Set holding a boom microphone next to cinematographer Richard Hama.

Behind-the-scenes photo inside a house. Pedro sits in front of the camera with Set holding a boom microphone next to cinematographer Richard Hama. Photo courtesy of Dorian Gomez Pestaña.

Since Pedro and I first started filming unseen in May 2016, I’ve always told him that my main audience for our film is no one else but him. After all, unseen is about his life and his decade-long journey to become a social worker. What makes the pursuit of this goal not so straightforward is the fact that Pedro is blind. If Pedro is truly my main audience, how can I make a film (arguably a primarily visual medium) not only accessible for him but, more so, enjoyable? How can our film embody accessibility, so that enjoying it can be equitable for sighted and low-vision audiences alike? 

It took some experimentation during the first two years of filming, but those experiments ultimately shaped the visual language of our film. From the very first frame, our film has a distinct out-of-focus cinematography to invite viewers to watch a film by listening, as opposed to absorbing information primarily through their sight. To quantify, 95% of the film's blurriness was created in-camera by filming with fast lenses, tilt-shift lenses, or no lenses at all (techniques I learned from my cinematography mentors Kristy Tully and PJ Raval). There was no turning back by the time we got to the edit room. 

New questions arose as I further developed the style of our “audio-based film.” How could we make the film accessible to audiences who are D/deaf and hard of hearing? On top of his vision loss, Pedro also happens to be an undocumented immigrant who lives a bilingual life. At school and work Pedro speaks mostly English, but at home he speaks only Spanish to his parents. How could we deploy subtitling (which in the U.S. commonly only includes one language as text), if members of our target audience were not able to access information through both senses? For our film, accessibility had to operate in multiple layers. 

Although it’s been eight years since Pedro and I first started making our film, I still wouldn’t call myself an expert on accessibility,. But I have learned a great deal from mentors and collaborators who have shepherded us in bringing unseen to life. As one of my mentors told me, “Know your audience and do your best with the resources that you have.” Knowing that we could not possibly address everyone’s access needs with an indie budget, we focused on the access features we could best tackle by the time of our world premiere for the audiences we seek to cater to.

With that in mind, the following lessons I am sharing here should not be taken as gospel truth, since they may or may not even apply to the accessibility questions other filmmakers might have.

1. Access is not one size fits all. 

During the initial stages of production, I intended for our film to be universally accessible. I wanted to reimagine cinema so drastically and create sound design so good that there would be no need for audio descriptions for blind audiences. Everyone could watch the same film at the same time, and it would be equally accessible for all of them.

But as I’ve come to realize, universal access is impossible, because conflicting access needs can arise when one person’s access needs might make the film less accessible for somebody else. For example, our end credits have animation that seeks to communicate the feeling of the end credit song for D/deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences. We had to be very intentional with how we visualized the music, however, because certain styles of animation might trigger seizures for some people.

2. Providing options is key to accessibility. 

Knowing that universal access is not realistic, we created multiple film files, so that we can address different access requests for different screenings. For example, to address concerns I previously mentioned, our festival DCP plays with (1) open captions in English, (2) the original bilingual dialogue, and (3) an AD track in English that can be transmitted to in-house headphones. But since some venues do not have AD headphones, we have another file that has open AD in English that plays in the venue’s main speakers instead. We have these two versions on top of four others, combining iterations of captioning and audio descriptions in English and Spanish. For our film, this has meant that one screening caters to one group with common access needs, while another watches a different version of the film. As a result, our screenings this past year have felt like Broadway performances, where many screenings are never exactly the same. We even had some screenings that offered “live” AD and Spanish interpretation, where human interpreters read the AD script and Spanish transcript through equipment traditionally used for simultaneous language interpretation. 

For an even more concrete example: We have at least four versions of our trailer online. One has closed captions in English and Spanish. Another has open AD in English. Another has open captions in Spanish. And a fourth one has open captions in English. Because every film file incurs costs, it’s important to include access features in film budgets from the get-go. A full list of accessible features created for unseen can be found here.

3. Technology can help with simultaneous accessibility. 

One of the impact goals of our film is to bring the D/deaf, disabled, and undocumented communities together, so our partners at Dicapta shared some tools to provide multiple accessibility options simultaneously within the same event. All4Access is one such mobile app (here’s a tutorial video). The filmmaker can upload the access features of their film (captions, AD, multiple languages, etc.) to a repository, and an audience member can then access them through their mobile device and check out the personalized access features they need while the film is being projected. If the person next to them has another set of access needs, that person can also use All4Access on their own phone and utilize access features that might conflict with somebody else’s.

4. Accessibility is a collective effort. 

I am really proud that our multiracial filmmaking team comprises undocumented immigrant and disabled filmmakers, who themselves have firsthand connections to the story portrayed in unseen. It was essential for me to collaborate with filmmakers who have expertise in accessibility, especially filmmakers with disabilities who themselves use access features as consumers in their daily lives. We even developed the title “Accessibility Producer” to credit our collaborators Cheryl Green and Thomas Reid, because their role was to not only give advice but also, importantly, oversee the hands-on creation of accessibility assets for our film. As we deliver to festivals, it has been tremendous to work with our post-production producer JoSaen Ronquillo, who is intentional about accessibility, explaining to festivals the various options for our print traffic materials on top of delivering our assets. Beyond technical skillsets, a film team needs to have shared values around accessibility and work toward it together. I alone couldn’t have accomplished the accessibility goals of our film.

5. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and learn from them. 

As a nondisabled filmmaker working with disabled collaborators, there were many times I had gaps in my judgment and did or said the wrong thing. In the documentary field, I sometimes feel that there’s a presumption that filmmakers from “marginalized” identities will always do right by their own community. But I know that being a queer, undocumented immigrant of color does not absolve me from being accountable. Instead of hiding my mistakes, I had to learn how to be open about them and welcome correction from my collaborators. Of course, it was then on me to do my due diligence to improve. In fact, this lesson does not just relate to accessibility, but to making documentary films overall.

6. Accessibility is not just about disability. 

I recognize that stylistically, adding an access feature might not always align with a nondisabled filmmaker’s idea of how they want their film to be experienced. But I think it’s important to reframe how we think of accessibility as a “challenge.” It reminds me of my disabled friends who have told me how people have made them feel as if they’re a “burden” when they request accommodations. I have done a lot of self-advocacy myself for a whole set of other issues related to my immigration status, so I know how it feels when people make it seem like I’m bothering them when I’m just asking for the bare minimum. 

As demonstrated in our film, accessibility is not only about disability. The more accessible the world is, the better it is for all of us. My collaborators have reminded me that “Access Is Love,” borrowing from Alice Wong. Accessibility has really become an opportunity, not a challenge, for me to welcome more people to check out our film and expand my audience. It’s also allowed me to further sharpen my skill sets and resourcefully tackle creative questions related to our film—and learn how that can enhance accessibility. 

Could it be that filmmakers are sometimes unenthusiastic about accessibility because we think of it too much as a technical issue—in the same bucket as the conform or deliverables? I argue that accessibility is actually an aesthetic matter too. If filmmakers spend years developing our stylistic approach for a project, perhaps it’s time to integrate accessibility within the same creative processes where we ideate the visual language and soundscape of our films. I want to build on a body of work that considers what the “aesthetic of accessibility” could mean for cinema, as the podcasts Down to the Struts and Reid My Mind discuss. 

As an undocumented immigrant myself, I have come to notice that many immigration-related films do not cater to undocumented audiences. Instead, they’re made for the “citizen gaze,” as undocumented poet Yosimar Reyes ponders. In the same way, films about blind people rarely cater to blind audiences. Pedro has told me he can’t even watch many of them because they don’t have audio descriptions. Even when they do, they sound rote, often devoid of lyricism.

With Pedro as the main audience of our film, those who share Pedro’s lived experiences (namely, undocumented immigrants and blind people) inevitably become part of our extended target audience. I really want to center the sensibilities of audiences who are rarely thought of as primary audiences for film. It’s 2024. Cinema can no longer just cater to nondisabled audiences in the same way it has historically excluded the sensibilities of many other underrepresented audiences. The poetry, sensibility, and aesthetics of accessibility are key to that goal.

For more information about accessibility for unseen, check out the following panels and interviews:

– Disability Justice: Spotlight on Unseen at BlackStar Film Festival
– Reid My Mind Podcast: Describing What Is Unseen 
– Down to the Struts: Understanding What Is Unseen With Set Hernandez and Pedro 

Set Hernandez is a filmmaker, impact producer, and community organizer whose work seeks to expand the portrayal of their communities onscreen. A queer, undocumented immigrant originally from the Philippines, Set co-founded the Undocumented Filmmakers Collective, which advocates for equity for undocumented immigrants in the film industry.