HAVANA TIMES — It’s not common to see a group of blind people lining up to go to the movies, but Cubans are beginning to get used to it. Once a month there’s special function for people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired, and soon these events will also include people with hearing difficulties.
The project is called “Tocando la Luz” (Touching the Light), which consists of adding audio descriptions to movies. In short, this involves creating a new soundtrack in which an announcer describes what is seen in each scene, though avoiding segments with the original talking.
The initiative was born from an idea by George Frometa, a cultural promoter at the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) who managed to get the support of the National Association of the Blind (ANCI). So far more than 1,000 people have attended these special functions.
They invited us to “see” one of the movies. When we sat in the chairs and closed our eyes, we discovered a whole new experience. Guided by the speaker’s voice, we created scenes in our imagination, with that being very similar to a radio soap-opera.
“They feel the movie”
To Lazaro Mane, 14, the film he liked best was El cuerno de la abundancia (The Horn of Plenty). He told us that this initiative allows them to integrate more into society: “Now we can watch a movie without having to have a sighted person next to us.”
I was surprised that none of the respondents wanted to add TV to this effort, but Lazaro explained that having it at the cinema allows them to “get out and interact more with society.” In any case, he isn’t much of a home body; he plays the bass in a salsa band and also practices judo.
At the entrance to the cinema we met Alina Quevedo and her daughter Liz, a 28-year-old blind opera singer who graduated from the Instituto Superior de Arte. They explained that the project allows them to “feel the movie with all their senses”; it also serves for “socializing and as a meeting place.”
Tania Calvo is 42 and for decades she hadn’t gone to the movies. The last film she remembered seeing was La Vida sigue igual, with Julio Iglesias. Now she says, “I’ve listened to all the movies and I liked almost all of them. I’m happy for the opportunity they’ve created for us.”
One less “barrier”
Frometa explained that they are getting technical support from the group at ICAIC that works on dubbing, adding that this is multidisciplinary work: “We have to create a new script, searching for the exact words, and those have to fit into the empty spaces between the dialogue.”
He explained that they have now presented 21 movies like this, including Se permuta, La muerte de un burocrata, Los dioses rotos, Miel para Ochun, Elpidio Valdez, Rojo, Cha cha cha, Y sin embargo and Jose Marti, el ojo del canario.
“There were 68-year-old people who had never been to the movies,” said Frometa. Guillermo Rodriguez, ANCI’s secretary of Culture, added that “up until now the cinema had been a cultural activity prohibited for all of us.”
The National Association of the Blind, which has more than 30,000 members in the country, is working to extend the initiative across the entire island. Rodriguez told us that they have “given each province a set of six films to begin these types of functions.”
The cost of making an audio-description for a movie is high, involving the work of eight specialists for at least a month. They save a little by working on Cuban films because the directors give them the rights to the movies once the project is explained to them.
ANCI has also succeeded in getting the price of tickets cut in half for its members, so they only pay one peso (4 cents USD) for admission. This means that the project is financed by the government, because the total money collected at the box office so far has been less than $50 USD.
They are now looking for other associations for the blind around the world in order to expand the film bank by exchanging Cuban movies for those from other countries. They also have a project for subtitling Cuban films so as to extend this initiative to people who are hearing impaired.