Arts & Culture

Why deaf people are flocking to the cinema in Bristol

Tuesday 22 March
Why deaf people are flocking to the cinema in Bristol

- March 22 at 10:30 AM

For the past six months anyone visiting the Watershed arts cinema in Bristol might have noticed things were unusually quiet. All the staff, from those handing out tickets in the box office to the bar staff in the cafe have all been focused on the same project – to master British Sign Language (BSL).

You may well have seen bar staff practising their sign for Coca-Cola or skinny latte, while ushers have been slowly mastering the sign language for all those seat numbers.

But as the hush has descended on the Harbourside arts centre, the numbers of people visiting the attraction from the city’s 1,000-strong deaf community has been steadily on the rise – not only to watch subtitled films – of which there are plenty on offer at the Watershed – but also to socialise in the cafe bar, which has turned into their “local”, thanks to the new focus on making service more accessible.

The Arts Council-funded scheme, which is part of its Agent for Change programme, has brought in David Ellington, pictured below, a Bristol artist who is himself a profoundly deaf BSL user, on a six month residency to teach staff to sign, but also to increase awareness among the team of wider accessibility issues for deaf people.

“It’s really been about increasing awareness of what it is like for a deaf person to come to a venue like this,” David explained, speaking through an interpreter. “So I have been teaching staff members to sign, focusing in particular on the sorts of words they would need to use as part of their job.

“Really it’s all about levelling the playing field, so when a deaf person comes in they feel just as welcome as everyone else. Historically deaf people certainly have felt alienated within the wider community, so anything we can do to lessen this is really very important.

“But this is just the starting point, when I go away I fully expect the staff to continue building their knowledge of BSL, and that will hopefully allow the Watershed to show the way for other organisations in the city.”

Helen Jaffa, who leads the front of house team at the venue, said, “Often it’s just simple things. For instance, we filmed David simply saying ‘welcome to the Watershed’ in sign language, and we have that playing on a screen in the lobby. That’s made a huge difference for deaf people visiting – they see that, and they breathe a sigh of relief, because they know immediately that they can relax – the staff here are making an effort here to be more accessible.

“And as a result, they have really started to visit us more and more – both to watch films, but also just to socialise – with the cafe bar becoming their local, which is fantastic.”

Mark Cosgrove, cinema curator, said the artistic element of the drive has not been about choosing a programme around deaf people’s themes, it’s simply about making sure the films on offer are made available with audio descriptive subtitles – even on a foreign film ordinary subtitles don’t quite suffice, because they disappear as soon as somebody says something in English.

“But it really is much more than that,” he said. “It’s about offering a proper welcome to deaf people – it’s about saying we’re a diverse and accessible arts organisation.

“It’s not easy – it’s like trying to learn a foreign language,” he adds. “But the fact that we have all been learning it at the same time means we have been able to support each other and practise our signing on each other.

“We have introduced a monthly Deaf Conversations About Cinema event – a relaxed, informal opportunity for both deaf and hearing customers to come together to talk about a film following a descriptive subtitled screening. That’s had a fantastic response, with 30 or 40 members of the deaf community coming along to them to discuss – in sign language – the film they’ve just seen.”

As part of sign language awareness week – marking the anniversary of the date in 2003 when the government formally acknowledged BSL as an official UK language – the Watershed held a celebration on Friday of their journey so far.

Dick Penny, artistic director of the Watershed, said, “It’s just been a really positive six months with having David here in residence.

“It’s all about making sure the service we provide is inclusive and open and accessible to all, but it’s also about making the Watershed a more diverse and richer community – we’re all here because we love cinema, and it’s about making sure the service we are providing is there for everyone.”

Photo caption: Staff at the Watershed get to grips with their signing

Article source: David Clensy, Bristol Post