Movies, until now produced to be seen, have more often than not been difficult to understand for blind and visually impaired persons because of their visual disability. This represents a cultural disadvantage because it is impossible to fully enjoy the vast cultural heritage offered in national and international cinematography. To ensure that content, images, and emotions contained in a film be fully accessible by blind persons as well is a goal now possible to attain, thanks to efforts provided by public and private organizations in the sector.

Federico Bartolomei

Prof. Roy Menarini, well-known cinema critic, has given us his thoughts on the state-of-the-art in cinema, in terms of disability.

From its beginning, cinema has dealt with the issue of disability, how have things changed over the years?

From the beginning of cinema, I don't believe that things have changed so much. There is now more social awareness and sensitivity towards the issue which is treated more tactfully, but the pattern remains the same. The spectator's identification process with the unfortunate person is to make him cry. The origins of cinema are melodramatic, therefore there are always characters who endure and suffer because this is the basis of melodrama. In Chaplin's movie City Lights, Chaplin is the comic who wants to bring on tears using a beautiful girl who is in a condition of suffering. Other times it becomes interesting to demonstrate how a person with a disability copes with a difficult situation, like in the film Wait until Dark with Audrey Hepburn, at the end of the 50's, in which a blind woman tries to defend herself alone against a bunch of delinquents who try to take the drugs she is carrying without her knowing it.

It appears to me that blind characters are more present than other characters with disabilities in cinema.Visual impairment must be preferred in respect to other pathologies because it reaches the spectator more. Besides, a blind woman can be beautiful, while it may be more difficult to represent beauty if one is sitting in a wheelchair, or without a limb, or with a mental disability.

And it's possible to laugh about disabilities. A recent example of this is the movie Hollywood Ending, where Woody Allen comically interprets a film director who becomes blind, but still succeeds in finishing his film. In that movie, Woody Allen attempts to demonstrate that a movie does not necessarily have to be seen but that it can be told and represented using other senses.

When a movie deals with the issue of disability, the disabled person is a protagonist or rather becomes an accessory element that could be eliminated without having too much effect on the plot?

A disabled can hardly be a protagonist, but is present more often for sentimentality, along with any other situation of weakness.
We have 100 years of cinema behind us and things have not changed at all, but it may be more interesting to have a cinema created by the disabled for the disabled. Someone has travelled that path in the 60's, like Marco Bellocchio with his popular film Matti da slegare. There has been some work done in theatre these past few years where persons with disabilities have all the roles, with or without actors who have no disabilities. But, it is the spectator's perception which must change, otherwise the patterns will remain the same.

Could you name some other movies?

If I have to name some movies that deal with this subject, those that come to mind would be On the 8th Day by Jacob Van Dormael, a 1976 movie in which the main character has the Down syndrome. There is At First Sight, a 2000 film by Irwin Winkler in which a blind man undergoes a surgery and finally sees, but later realizes that he prefers to return to blindness. Then there is Bad Boy Bubby, an Australian film with a mentally disabled person who acts extravagantly, an honest film from the middle of the 90's.

It can be said that cinema has not changed a lot the representation of disability, but disabled treated like circus freaks do not exist anymore. Now, like then, they are used with the idea of melodrama in mind without any interest in their condition. I was forgetting to mention the very famous movie, and probably unsurpassed for the intelligence with which it deals with disability, Freaks, done in 1932 by Tod Browning, where we see circus freaks rebel themselves against normality.

Is there a difference between American and European cinema in this regard?

Yes, certainly, American cinema always gives the impression to do politically correct cinema. It therefore deals with subject matters mostly because it's part of the social agenda and therefore it must be done. European cinema, on the contrary, is still based on the representation of the author and is therefore free from certain logics.

In Hollywood Ending, the director, interpreted by Woody Allen, has had to finish the retakes of a film made impossible to see; he therefore had to become quite sagacious in order to use a medium traditionally represented visually. Is it possible to create a cinema for blind persons or that at least is enjoyable by persons who do not see?

It seems to be a paradox, but on the contrary it can work. Just like there are radio programs adapted for the blind, it must be the same for movies. Since its beginning, one school of thought has considered cinema based only on the photographic reproduction of reality, while another theory, of surrealist origin, (Bunuel, Kyrou, already in the 20's) understands cinema as a language completely dreamlike, in an absolute imaginary world. With this point of view, there could be an idea of cinema for the blind, and I fall into that line of thought, also because with digital technology we are losing the concept of photographic reproduction, freeing cinema from the simple representation of reality. In a scene of Adrenaline, a French movie from the beginning of the 90's, blind persons are standing in a long line to go to the movies: it was not cruelty, it is possible because I personally know blind persons who go to the movies.

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