Blind cinema goers had mixed reviews about the experience. Photo: Shutterstock
The Audiovision Film Festival, which began this week and runs to April 14th, is unusual in that it caters to the blind and visually impaired.
Movies are screened as normal on the big screen. But in the theatre in a southern Paris district hosting the festival, the audience is wearing headphones hooked into a local network to hear blow-by-blow synchronised descriptions of the action happening before their un- or poor-seeing eyes.
"A pterodactyl swoops from the sky and pecks Edouard on the head," narrates a voice in echo of a scene from the opening film shown on Wednesday: a new French animation comedy making light of prehistoric evolution, titled "Pourquoi j'ai pas mangé mon père" (Why I didn't eat my father).
For the crowd of blind and partially blind school children in the theatre, the movie — and its added soundtrack — elicited laughs and giggles.
Fabio, a nine-and-a-half-year-old who lined up to get popcorn for the feature, told AFP that the Audiovision description augmented his experience of the movie.
"I imagine the film and I try to 'see' the description," he said.
A blind-from-birth radio presenter who led an audience debate after the movie, Benjamin Mauro, ventured that "if there wasn't Audiovision, it would have been impossible to follow this film".
Many of the children agreed it helped greatly, but one or two said they had adapted to piecing together movies from the dialogue and sounds that having a narrated description wasn't indispensable.
"I've always been used to 'watching' series and films that it (Audiovision) handicapped me, in fact," said one adolescent, Benita, during the debate.
Mauro, too, admitted that the system wasn't perfect, and he had to turn up the volume on his headphones to make the audio description audible above the movie's Dolby-boosted soundtrack.
Jean-Marc Plumauzille, who helped put the Audiovision soundtrack together for the opening film, also said that animations were a challenge "because they go along at high speed and leave little space for narration".
Other movies were taxing in different ways, he said, for instance in using the right words to evoke an atmosphere produced visually.
– Gradual progress –
For the organisers of the film festival, the process was progressively getting better.
Audio-description systems started out in the United States and spread to France in the 1990s, where government subsidies since 2012 have incited theatre networks to take take them on.
Still, said Olivier Jaud de La Jousseliniere, of the Valentin Huy association organising the film festival and promoting access to culture for visually impaired people, "unfortunately it is still not developed enough".
In 2014, just 16 percent of films in France came with an audio-description soundtrack, and less than two percent of theatres were equipped.
In an effort to minimise the theatres' outlay for hardware, the German audio company Sennheiser supplying the headsets for the festival on Wednesday presented a smartphone app that allows the audiodescription soundtrack to be beamed in over a wifi network.
The efforts were appreciated by the students at the opening day screening.
One young visually impaired girl, Margot, encouraged those behind the festival — and the technology — by saying: "Keep going and, again, bravo!"