Sundance Jury Calls Out Festival Over Lack of Captioning at Two Screenings

Jurors for the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival walked out of Friday night’s premiere of “Magazine Dreams” due to a dispute about accessibility for hearing impaired audience members. Jury members, including Jeremy O. Harris and Eliza Hittman, stood in solidarity with their fellow juror Marlee Matin when a captioning device provided to her did not work.

While the device was eventually repaired and the jury made plans to see the film at another time, the incident speaks to a larger debate about accessibility in the film festival community. In private discussions during the weeks leading up to the festival, jurors had expressed concerns about the festival’s accessibility and had asked for all films to feature open captions shown on the screen. Following the “Magazine Dreams” screening, the jury released a signed letter to filmmakers asking them to make a stronger effort to ensure their films are accessible to deaf audiences.

A similar problem allegedly took place at a Saturday screening of “The Starling Girl,” with the jury releasing a separate statement condemning the technical problems that impaired deaf audiences’ abilities to experience the film.

“What we just experienced at the Library screening of ‘The Starling Girl’ was both disturbing and embarrassing, not for us, but for everyone who chose to do difficult thing of being actively hostile to the easy decision to be inclusive,” the jurors wrote in a statement provided to IndieWire. “As lovers of world cinema we are profoundly baffled that filmmakers would feel that captions would diminish the worth of their films. We hope that this ‘call in’ gives everyone a chance to reflect and can become a ‘teachable moment.’”

Following the incident on Friday night, Sundance began including open captions during the introduction videos and sponsor ads for all films screened on Saturday.

Sundance CEO Joana Vicente responded to the incident in a statement provided to IndieWire: “Our goal is to make all experiences (in person and online) as accessible as possible for all participants. Our accessibility efforts are, admittedly, always evolving and feedback helps drive it forward for the community as a whole. The screening device used to provide closed captions did not work at one of our Friday evening premieres. The jury left and will see it together at another time during the Festival. Our team immediately worked with the devices in that venue to test them again for the next screening and the device worked without any malfunction. Our team has been working hard in this area but there is always more work to do. We all still need to do more as we learn and consider the community at large. We are committed to improving experiences & belonging for all festival attendees. We consider accessibility as one of the primary drivers of institutional excellence and this work is done in partnership with film teams.”

IndieWire has reached out to representatives for “Magazine Dreams” and “The Starling Girl” for comment.

Read the full letter from the jury, obtained by IndieWire, below.

Dear US Dramatic Filmmakers,

We have all travelled to Utah to celebrate independent film and those who devote their lives to making them. There’s a thrill to sit in a room with others who love films and cheer for them together and Sundance has been an important place for each of us to do that over our varied careers. The US independent cinema movement began as a way to make film accessible to everyone, not just those with the most privileges among us.

As a jury our ability to celebrate the work that all of you have put into making these films has been disrupted by the fact that they are not accessible to all three of us. We implore you (with the recognition that each of your films finished at different times) that if your film has access to an open caption dcp that you will allow that to be the print that is projected for your premieres. This will allow your jury to enjoy the movie with your audience in the way we were meant to.

In 2023, when major institutions and artists are working more consciously to be inclusive in their hiring we hope we will continue to challenge ourselves to be make our audiences more inclusive as well.

Thank you for your time. We hope we can enjoy your films with each of you.

The US Dramatic Jury

Additional reporting by Eric Kohn and Kate Erbland.

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