A film festival in Hokkaido geared to the blind and deaf will celebrate its 11th year in June.

With all entries accompanied by subtitles, audio descriptions and sign language volunteers, the Hokkaido Universal Film Screening Festival draws around 1,000 visitors each year.

The festival is run by an organizing committee led by Shinichiro Shima, 46, who lost vision in both eyes in an accident when he was 21.

In 2004, he was asked by an acquaintance to participate in the compilation of an audio description guide for a movie. The experience, he says, led to the idea of starting the festival two years later in the city of Hokuto, next to his native city of Hakodate in southern Hokkaido.

What does it take to help blind people conceptualize scenes from a movie? With the help of colleagues, he had the dialogue and scene descriptions written down and sat through the film dozens of times to come up with what he thought was the best narrative for each scene.

“As I revisited the work over and over again, I think I got the message and the nuances the filmmaker wanted to get across,” he said of the appeal of working on the description for roughly three months.

Sitting through the film, those with or without disabilities shared laughter and tears, producing a sense of unity in the theater that he had never experienced before, Shima said. “That was the vibe I wanted to recreate elsewhere.”

Besides audio descriptions and subtitles, films at the festival are also accompanied by volunteers standing next to the screen who convey songs and music with sign language and physical movement.

“I want hearing-impaired people to feel the music when a musical note appears in a subtitle,” Shima explained.

A visitor told Shima, “When I was still able to see, I never cried watching a movie, but (at the festival) I was moved to tears.” It is comments like these that motivate him.

In the theater, many children without disabilities close their eyes or cover their ears with their hands. Shima said they are probably trying to share the experience of their friends with disabilities seated next to them.

“I hope the time comes when we are no longer segregated in our daily lives,” Shima said.

The 11th festival will take place at four venues spread in Hokuto, Hakodate and the neighboring town of Nanae from June to November.

There will be increased access for wheelchair-bound viewers throughout the theaters, unlike regular theaters that typically offer dedicated sections in corners.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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