It’s incredible how far technology has come in the world of cinema—even in just the past several years. 3D has evolved from a cheap headache-inducing gimmick to a breathless special effect that adds an entirely new dimension of visual depth to movies; the biggest summer blockbusters often portray otherworldly landscapes that seem so real, it’s as if they were captured on camera and not processed on a computer. But for deaf and hard-of-hearing moviegoers, the technology that’s been developed to help them enjoy films better remains frustratingly obtrusive and uncomfortable.

“Captioning devices have been frustrating for a lot of deaf people in different ways,” Erik Nordlof, a film fan who is deaf, tells Arts Desk in an email. “Captioning glasses can weigh uncomfortably on the nose or the ears, especially with a long movie, [and] sometimes the devices’ batteries are not charged or lose charge during the movie.”

The easiest way for deaf and hard-of-hearing people to enjoy movies, he says, is the simplest: subtitles or open caption screenings, as they’re called. And while that’s technology that’s rather simple for both movie theaters and patrons, it’s not exactly something a lot of theaters like to do—especially if there’s no guarantee that people will show up. As such, it’s usually hard for casual moviegoers to find open caption screenings in the D.C. area, which is what led Nordlof to form DC Deaf Moviegoers—a Facebook group and mailing list that organizes open caption screenings at local theaters for D.C.’s deaf and hard-of-hearing community. 

Nordlof started the group in October of 2015 after he and some friends requested Regal Gallery Place to show an OC screening of The Martian. Before that request, Nordlof says, he, along with many deaf people he knows, “assumed that [open captioning] was no longer available because captioning devices.” To his surprise, he found that, “depending on the theater chain, [open captioning] can be requested.”

In the D.C. area, Regal Cinemas hosts open caption screenings for a group of 10 or more if the screening is requested seven to 10 days in advance, to allow time to obtain OC content and to set it up properly. AMC Theatres, on the other hand, doesn’t host OC screenings unless the entire screening is sold out, “which is routinely unrealistic,” Nordlof says.

Once Nordlof found out he could organize an OC screening of The Martian, he conducted a Doodle poll of deaf friends to settle on a date and time that worked best for everyone. After the success of the first screening, he decided to start a Facebook group as a way to organize screenings and discuss OC movies with D.C.’s deaf and hard of hearing community.

Since then, the Facebook group has amassed more than 700 members, so many, in fact, that Nordlof and Jessica Huang, who helps him organize screenings, had to create a mailing list so that they can effectively keep everyone in the loop. (Facebook caps the amount of people you can invite to an event to 500; if there’s any more than that, the administrator can only invite their friends.)

Now, DC Deaf Moviegoers hosts as many as four or five OC screenings a week—often different movies at the same theater on the same day. Apart from Regal theaters in the area, DC Deaf Moviegoers screenings are held at many of the area’s independent theaters, which were already routinely hosting OC screenings: Angelika Film Center at Mosaic and the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market, the AFI Silver Theatre, the Old Greenbelt Theatre, and The Avalon.

In just a few months, the DC Deaf Moviegoers group has had a huge impact for deaf and hard-of-hearing film fans. “I think the open captioned initiative is a new space we’ve opened up for the local deaf community,” Nordlof says. But he also thinks it can be bigger and that local theaters can do more outreach on their part to ensure people outside of the DC Deaf Moviegoers group know about OC screenings.

“The local deaf community is quite close-knit, but there are still deaf people finding out about OC movies. There are likely people in the area who lose their hearing later in life and may not have that network to know about OC movies,” Nordlof says. “There may be people who speak English as a second language who may want to know about OC movies. I hope that OC screenings can become more commonplace.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery