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The Importance Of Audio Description For Subtitled Movies


The South Korean film "Parasite" made history this year when it became the first non-English-language movie to take home the Oscar for Best Picture. Its director, Bong Joon-ho, has said that if Americans overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, they'll be introduced to so many more films. But Jason Strother reports that for the estimated 26 million Americans who are blind and visually impaired, subtitles make "Parasite" and most foreign-language movies even more inaccessible.

JASON STROTHER: Denise Decker says some sighted people don't understand why a blind person would want to go to the movies.

DENISE DECKER: Those of us who are vision-impaired - we enjoy going to movies as much as probably anyone else does. And we probably go as often as some sighted people do.

STROTHER: Decker, a retired federal government worker who lives in Washington, D.C., says she likes all kinds of movies as long as there's a good story. But a subtitled foreign language film is not an option, and Decker says dubbing isn't the solution.

DECKER: Dubbing just tells us the dialogue. It doesn't tell us the surrounding actions and other things that are taking place, maybe what the individuals are wearing, the expressions on their face. Are they moving? What else is happening? Dubbing doesn't give you any of that.

STROTHER: The answer, she says, is audio description - an embedded voice that translates visual imagery and action on the screen into spoken word. Here's how audio description, or AD, sounds.


SCARLETT JOHANSSON: (As Nicole Barber) I was going to warn you so it didn't become a thing. Sorry.

STROTHER: In a scene from last year's "Marriage Story..."


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: Holding the envelope, Charlie stares at her for a moment, then glances out the window, stares at her again, then looks down at the envelope.

ADAM DRIVER: (As Charlie Barber) I feel like I'm in a dream.

STROTHER: Most Hollywood movies include audio description, but most foreign-language films released in the U.S. do not. Joel Snyder, who directs the American Council of the Blind's Audio Description Project, suspects that's because subtitled films usually aren't big draws at the U.S. box office, and their American distributors might not want to invest more in their releases by adding AD.

JOEL SNYDER: It is somewhat more complicated but not prohibitive by any means. Probably most often when this is done, it's done with two voice talents - one who voices the subtitles and one who voices the descriptive material.

STROTHER: Here's an example from 2004's "The Passion Of The Christ," an American movie with English subtitles because the dialogue is in Latin, Hebrew and Aramaic.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: Jesus pulls his robe up over his shoulder and continues on. John faces Peter.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: What is wrong with him? He seems afraid. He had spoken about danger while we ate.

STROTHER: Since 2017, the Americans With Disabilities Act has required movie theaters to provide closed captioning as well as audio description when available, so now a visually impaired person can request a receiver headset at the box office that plays the description in sync with the film. Online streaming services also create AD for their productions. But Rebecca Williford, managing attorney at Disability Rights Advocates, DRA, in Berkeley, Calif., says it took legal actions.

REBECCA WILLIFORD: One with Netflix, one with Hulu where we had been able to get increased audio description content on those streaming services. And we were able to work out a settlement with AMC to ensure that they would do things like more frequent checks of their equipment so things like that wouldn't ruin people's evening at the movies.

STROTHER: AMC is just one theater chain, and those settlements don't seem to apply to "Parasite." Its North American distributor, NEON, declined an interview request. The film's only English-language audio description was available in British cinemas.


MATT JARMAN: Evening. Dong-ik is riding in the Benz, leafing through some documents. All of a sudden, he drops one.

STROTHER: It was created by London-based Matt Jarman of Bad Princess Productions.

DRIVER: English language is no indication of quality in film. But if it's about accessibility, why should you only be able to access films from one culture? You know, America do make a lot of films - the U.K. as well. But everybody's making films, so we should be able to enjoy them all.

STROTHER: Jarman's description is also available on "Parasite's" U.K. DVD release. Denise Decker and other visually impaired people in the D.C. area got ahold of this version and finally understood what all the buzz was about. She says getting sighted people to understand where she's coming from is just as important.

DECKER: When I've been at a movie with friends who are sighted, I've just taken one of the sides of the headset and let them listen to a little bit of the audio description so they understand what I'm hearing while they're watching the movie. And immediately, people say, oh, yeah. I get it. I understand now. I understand why it's important to you.

STROTHER: For NPR News, I'm Jason Strother.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUNG JAEIL'S "OPENING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Strother