To Caption Or Not To Caption A Movie About Autism?


Wretches and Jabberers title
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Historically, people with autism were usually excluded from society, and even today this is an unfortunate fact of life in different cultures around the world. “Wretches & Jabberers,” a film by Gerardine Wurzburg about two autistic men traveling to different countries, challenges long-standing assumptions people harbor about autistic people in general. In this film, Larry Bissonnette and Tracy Thresher, who are autistic, visit three countries with vastly different cultures — Sri Lanka, Japan and Finland — and fight prevailing attitudes in these countries about their own disability.

Sounds like a fantastic movie and I plan to see it soon. Which is why the decision not to caption the movie’s premiere at the Vermont International Film Festival in late October is very puzzling. I first heard about this movie from a deaf friend in Vermont who was excited to attend the premiere. However, when she inquired about captioning for this film, the associate producer of “Wretches and Jabberers,” Dan Curl, replied to her:

“I apologize but the festival organizers would like the film to premiere in its original format as envisioned by the director. I have requested that the two additional screenings in the festival be open captioned: Oct. 24th at 1:15pm & Oct. 26th at 3:30pm . They are happy to oblige. I hope you can make it to one of these showings and enjoy the film. Thank you for your support!”

I previewed the “Wretches & Jabberers” trailer — which is captioned — and it is not clear why the festival organizers would like the film to go without captions at its premiere. What is meant by “original format as envisioned by the director?” Do they not want deaf and hard-of-hearing people to attend the festival premiere of the movie? So much for the inclusion which the two autistic men in the film are fighting for.

International film festivals, such as the one in Vermont, usually have foreign films in their native languages that come with English subtitles, so there should be no arbitrary decision on what specific screening times a film should be captioned. The premiere will be shown at 6:30 on a Friday evening, which is usually a social evening and the most convenient time to see a movie. The captioned versions will be shown during the day on Sunday and Tuesday, when some people have day jobs and other commitments.

But even then, that is not the point. Elaine Morse, a deaf Vermont resident, said, “The organizers are essentially saying, yes, we will allow you to see the film with captions, but you have to go at another time. We don’t want the captions during the premiere. In other words, we don’t want people with disabilities attending our premiere.”

If the associate producer of a movie — the same movie which challenges cultural beliefs that exclude a whole disability group — listens to the wishes of organizers of a local festival and removes captions for its premiere, this defeats the purpose of the movie which is to educate the general public about the experiences of two men with a disability who were excluded from society for much of their early lives.

After all, on the aforementioned trailer, there are open captions which are part of the film. On some scenes, the men use a communication device — which spells words out on a screen — to communicate. One of the men says, “People all want communication.”

People all want communication. The festival organizers want the film to premiere without captions. How is it considered “communication?”

2 Comments on "To Caption Or Not To Caption A Movie About Autism?"

  1. I would like to respond to the claim that the festival organizers did not want to screen the film with captions during the opening event. It was the decision of the film’s director to screen the film without captions at the premiere. As media artists we often want to maintain the integrity of the visual material, and for an opening event, the director felt she wanted to present it in a manner that respects the original medium. We at the festival understand this desire. We also understand the need to make the film accessible. I think it’s counter productive to place blame, particularly since the situation has been corrected through collaboration and discussion. We’re thrilled to present this film at VTIFF and we want as many people as possible to come and enjoy it. Deb Ellis, President, Vermont International Film Festival


  2. Dear Deb Ellis,

    Thank you for your response. My article was based on the letter from the movie’s associate producer and other anecdotal sources. It was not a question of placing blame, but commenting on the known information at that time — which was that “the festival organizers would like the film to premiere in its original format as envisioned by the director.” I trust that you have worked out the details with the movie director and producer and glad to hear that the movie’s premiere will be captioned.

    It sounds like a very fascinating movie and I look forward to seeing it soon.


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