Allan Sutherland interviews Raina Haig
First published in Dail (Disability Arts in London Magazine) magazine, November 2002.
Allan Sutherland: Where did the idea for the Disability Film Festival come from?
Raina Haig: Five years ago in 1998, myself and several other British disabled filmmakers were in Torino, Italy, showing our work at the 3rd Festivale di Cinema Handicappe. Julie McNamara, artistic director of LDAF (London Disability Arts Forum), came too. The British films were amongst the very few directed, shot or produced by disabled people. Most of the work was made by non-disabled people, commissioned from professionals, or made by care workers or friends. The festival itself was organised by non-disabled people. The majority of bums on seats were also non-disabled people. Julie was inspired by the extent and quality of work 'made in Britain' by disabled people. She recognised it was high time for a festival in the UK that would create a platform for the growing body of work by British and other disabled filmmakers. Back in London, Julie set out to make it happen.
Allan Sutherland: What was the first festival like?
Raina Haig: The first 'Lifting the Lid' festival was the following year, 1999, in the Lux cinema, London. LDAF pulled it off against all the odds, with no external funding or support. A few committed 'crips' gathered to celebrate the advent of a disability film festival screening the work of, and run by, disabled people. The atmosphere was euphoric and chaotic. The two day schedule was manic: loads of films, no breaks. I felt a resurgence of that activist spirit that pervaded and characterised disability events in the late 80s and early 90s, pre DDA. We had gained entrance to yet another hitherto inaccessible bastion, this time the world of independent film.
Allan Sutherland: Any memories of specific features of other festivals?
Raina Haig: I've attended most of the festival screenings over four years. And every year, for the first three years, I staged a walk-out over lack of access. Each year, Caglar Kimyoncu [Director of the Disability Film Festival] and I played out our respective roles, Caglar as LDAF's listening ear and me as disgruntled visually impaired punter. Each year, Caglar recorded a frustrated outburst from me, to help ensure there would be audio description the following year. Many other visually impaired people left or left out the festival altogether, due to lack of access. I'd go back in, placated by the promise of a personal, whispered audio description service. This was invariably provided by Julie or Caglar, the festival organisers, or Joe, editor of Dail Magazine.
Allan Sutherland: What do you think of the move to the NFT?
Raina Haig: The NFT is the right place for the film festival. All credit to Julie and Caglar, the many LDAF volunteers, and those at the NFT, who made it happen. It felt like a coming of age, to be drinking champagne in the company of old familiar faces from the British Disability Arts movement, international guests, with non-disabled 'others' looking on curiously. Inside the auditorium of NFT2, I had my first experience of accessible cinema: Audio description for every film. I hope the festival grows to fill both NFT auditoriums. There's plenty of scope for including seminars, interviews, masterclasses and other special interest sessions along the lines of the London International Film Festival, the London Lesbian and Gay Festival and others.
Allan Sutherland: Has it created opportunities for you, inspired you to new work, led to your work being seen elsewhere etc?
Raina Haig: It was thanks to the festival that I got my biggest job to date: as director of GETTIN OFF, a half hour drama for Channel 4's Dogma TV series. I've enjoyed feeling part of a happening thing: the festival is part of a growing international disability filmmaking scene. Every year I've been inspired by the quality and variety of work being made by disabled people all over the world. It's a new collective presence.
I came into filmmaking through broadcast TV and film school. I've spent a lot of time learning the craft and haven't yet evolved into my own distinct 'voice' as an independent filmmaker. The festival's existence and seeing the work of other disabled filmmakers, makes me braver in exploring and developing my own creative process.
Allan Sutherland: In particular, I'd like your version of what's happened to make the films accessible to people with visual impairments:
Raina Haig: LDAF has brought years of arts access expertise to bear in developing a cinema experience that is truly inclusive. But Rome wasn't built in a day. As we know, good access provision is rare. It always involves a complex set of technical, financial and organisational problems. And LDAF have to work within the limitations of the wider environment: venue buildings, information systems, staff attitudes - all these may present problems. Audio description, an added narration enabling visually impaired people to enjoy a film, is a vital part of access provision. However, audio description for film is still in its infancy: Technical problems arise with the headsets and transmission system. And, in my opinion, there is still a long way to go in developing the art of audio description for film.
Allan Sutherland: How have they been getting on?
Raina Haig: As someone with access to all the films at a film festival for the first time ever, it was nothing short of miraculous. However, as a discerning film lover, being charged a full price ticket, the front of house service was shoddy, the narratives were in the main lacking in craft and poorly delivered.
Allan Sutherland: Have they achieved enough?
Raina Haig: LDAF, as contractors, have an important role to play in demanding an audio description service that matches the craft, insight and imagination of the films being described. When audio describers are asking thousands of pounds in fees, visually impaired, ticket paying audiences want their money's worth too.
Allan Sutherland: What do you think is needed?
Raina Haig: LDAF needs to ensure they are contracting a service with a commitment to improving audio description for FILM, as opposed to other art forms such as live arts.
Allan Sutherland: And what do you think about the way LDAF has kept hold of the festival, particularly during the move to the NFT?
Raina Haig: The world of film usually means expensive technical equipment, budgets which include many unavoidable costs, aesthetic expectations. It can be pressurised, aggressive, destructive to new 'voices'. All this can make it hard for a disabled person to access. However, film is a powerful communication medium, capable of reaching far and wide. It is flexible in terms of production and distribution approach. This makes it inherently well suited to disabled practitioner and audiences.
It's important to hold onto and develop what LDAF has created: a space in which we feel supported in our explorations and experimentations. Because this space, though born of confidence, is still fragile and needs protecting and nurturing. At the same time, disability film needs to be seen, discussed, validated. LDAF at the NFT is the ideal combination.
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