An established and beloved aspect of the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) is standing in ‘queues winding their way around city blocks in the depths of winter’, meeting like-minded cinephiles. This is not something I can participate in. My disability makes it difficult to stand for long periods of time. For many years, MIFF did not have an access strategy, prioritise disabled creators, or embrace technology and locations that made it possible for D/deaf and disabled people to attend.
MIFF is a space for community. As Kirsten Stevens explains, from its beginning in 1952 MIFF has focused on its audience of film lovers rather than existing as a space for industry dealings. Part of MIFF’s consistent audience were immigrants and refugees; exhibiting international films, the festival was a place to feel connection with the community they left behind while creating a new community here. The largest film festival in the Southern Hemisphere, MIFF continues to prioritise audiences, screening international feature films alongside new films from and retrospectives of popular directors. It has expanded its popular extended reality (XR) program and hosts public panels of well-known academics, filmmakers, and Melbourne public figures. MIFF now encourages a broader audience through a regional program and significantly discounted tickets for members of First Nations communities. In 2023, MIFF artistic director Al Cossar described it as ‘a space, a place, a crowd and a community that invites you to lean forward’, highlighting the festival’s appreciation of its audience and the importance of the shared experience of film viewing to the festival’s philosophy.
Film festivals that want to be truly inclusive of their audience need to focus on accessibility. Disabled people make up nearly 20% of the Australian population. Disabled people should thus be a significant proportion of film festival audiences and talent. Creating inclusive festivals is a good business decision, allowing a larger audience to participate. Historically, disabled people have been excluded from society, segregated in institutions, nursing homes, and ‘special schools’, and marginalised by broader physical and attitudinal barriers. ‘Participation in cultural life’ is a fundamental element of a good life, noted in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability. Like everyone, disabled people want to participate in cultural events and feel part of their community, yet even now disabled people are more likely to experience social isolation than nondisabled people.
Film festival norms and traditions exist in tension with the requirements and desires of disabled attendees. Roderick Smits explains that film festivals are constrained by ‘ideological expectations that tell us what film festival culture should be like’. These traditionally centre on the ‘special and unique experience’ of in-person, collective film viewing in large, inaccessible cinemas; the ‘bodily presence of audiences, filmmakers and critics’ in the ‘rituals, hype and feeling of belonging to a group’. The expected rituals of film festivals include the routine of waiting in line and finding a seat in the cinema, bringing us into conversation and assembly with fellow film lovers. For disabled people, these normative festival structures mean film festivals have been sites of exclusion.
Access at MIFF
In 2023 MIFF overhauled its access strategy to target D/deaf and disabled audiences. The festival employed an access coordinator and embraced a multifaceted understanding of accessibility. The festival publicly recognised that the Australian screen sector is ‘riddled with inequality and obstacles to participation’ for disabled people. Indeed, our research Disability and Screen Work in Australia: Report for Industry revealed that disabled people are marginalised across all aspects of the screen industry, from employment in the sector to participation in exhibition.
MIFF categorised accessible services into Physical, Communication, and Sensory Access. The festival reinstated their streaming platform, MIFF Play – essential during the pandemic – for those who cannot access the physical cinema. The festival ensured Quiet spaces and wheelchair access in all metro venues, and Assistive Listening or hearing loop devices at some venues. The program included open-captioned, audio-described, and relaxed screenings. Relaxed screenings provide a comfortable space for neurodivergent or Autistic people and others who need to be able to move around or talk during screenings; they are sensory friendly, with reduced sound and lights turned up. The program offered advice on difficult content and strobing light and was searchable by some access requirements. For other access requirements, MIFF’s website and communications made clear where to go for assistance.
The festival listened to my access requirements and helped me attend as easily as possible. I did not have to explain my disability to volunteers or staff, an important sign that the festival understands that explaining impairments and medical conditions can feel frustrating and embarrassing. MIFF Premiere Fund, the festival’s co-financing stream, also prioritises access, requiring all films funded to produce captions and audio descriptions. These measures are a strong step in the right direction for a festival that has traditionally been exclusionary.
What is missing?
True inclusivity that incorporates disabled people into the full experience of the film festival is still lacking. One ‘category’ missing from MIFF’s access strategy is financial access. Disabled people in Australia experience layers of financial disadvantage, earning less than nondisabled people but with greater costs of living given the added expenses of things like support workers, medical appointments, assistive technology, and home modifications. Disabled people are ‘twice as likely to be unemployed as those without disability’ and significantly underemployed. If MIFF is truly committed to access for all, discounted tickets for the disability community are crucial.
Part of the festival’s inaccessibility stems from the use of older venues – Melbourne institutions poorly retrofitted to meet low access standards. I attended an opening-weekend screening of Shayda (Noora Niasari, 2023), a brilliant Australian film about an Iranian immigrant experiencing domestic abuse, at Melbourne CBD venue the Forum. A row of chairs had been removed so wheelchairs could fit in the cinema. However, this row was isolated at the front of the space. Consequently, while the session was sold out and the audience were packed in tightly, a person using a wheelchair sat by themselves. As noted, part of the joy of film festivals is community – those we stand with in queues and sit next to in cinemas – and it is crucial that disabled people are offered these communal experiences. Indeed, these forms of segregated seating echo historical isolating tactics that marked disabled people as second-class citizens. Many newer cinemas in Melbourne offer integrated seating, allowing people using wheelchairs or other mobility aids to choose where to sit and to sit with their friends. While this may seem like an issue of physical access, it is also one of emotional access – the form of access that makes disabled people feel like they are welcome, not just tolerated, in social spaces.
True inclusivity also means that disabled people should have choices when attending film festivals. Open captions are subtitles that incorporate dialogue and describe the sounds in a film. They are an easy way to ensure a high level of accessibility, allowing a broad community to participate in festival exhibitions. They are particularly helpful for D/deaf and hard of hearing people. Critic Michael McNeely describes open captions as like wheelchair ramps; ‘everyone can benefit from both, even people who don’t think they need them (they might later).’ Open captions do not require further labour from disabled people, who are already tasked with constantly fighting for accessible options. Open captions also mean that D/deaf and disabled people do not have to grapple with personal captioning devices that malfunction. This famously occurred at Sundance 2023, with juror Marlee Matlin unable to access a screening of Magazine Dreams (Elijah Bynum, 2023) and walking out with other jurors in protest. As McNeely notes, open captions make ‘the disability and accommodation visible’, challenging the ableist notion of disability as ‘a source of shame’.
Despite open captions being helpful for a range of people, they are not a standard aspect of film production. Only eight films at MIFF 2023 had a screening with open captions; for most of these films, open captions were only displayed at a single session despite them being available and co-funded by MIFF’s funding body. Similarly, only eight films had audio description available for use by blind and vision impaired people. While the festival could have done more to encourage submissions with open captions and audio description, this is not simply an issue with the festival. Film producers and distributors also need to commit to budgeting for these fundamental elements of access.
Some other aspects of MIFF’s access practices reflected a tokenistic attitude towards disability inclusion. Only two of the six ‘MIFF Talks’ panel events were Auslan (Australian Sign Language) interpreted. None of the regular pre-screening introductions or post-screening panels I attended were Auslan interpreted, even when the screening was directly concerned with disability. While some venues had assistive listening units and hearing loops, these were only available with specific film screenings and needed to be specifically requested by disabled audience members.
These elements – easy changes like introducing discounted tickets for disabled people, encouraging submissions with open captions and audio description, funding more Auslan interpreters, and choosing more accessible venues – are key to creating shared festival experiences that are welcoming to all of us.
Audiences versus creators
MIFF’s stated mission is ‘to bring you the story of the world through curated and unforgettable screen experiences’.However, the festival has not fully embraced the stories of our vibrant, creative disability community. Disability representation was highlighted in only three of the over 180 feature films playing across the festival: The Tuba Thieves, This is Going to be Big (Thomas Charles Hyland, 2023), and Fledglings (Lidia Duda, 2022). While the festival screened over 70 short films, only three concerned disability. Disability was more widely represented in the festival’s small but growing VR program stream, with two of the nine works exploring the embodied experience of disability. This is an interesting anomaly in the program and suggests a thematic emphasis on affective and individualistic experience of disability rather than the socio-political issues of discrimination, marginalisation, and violence that impact disabled people daily.
The disjuncture between MIFF’s stated commitment to access and the lack of disability-related programming reflects a broader issue with film festival understandings of disability and accessibility. Disability is assumed to exist only in audiences. Despite MIFF noting the discrimination disabled people face across all aspects of the screen sector, D/deaf and disabled industry professionals, filmmakers, critics, and ambassadors remain marginalised within the program. For instance, all stages at MIFF venues I attended had narrow steps and no handrails. These exclusionary elements suggest that, as with other mainstream film festivals, filmmakers and industry participants are not accounted for within the festival’s access strategy in the same way that audiences are.
This damaging misunderstanding of disability as not impacting filmmakers is reflected in some of the disability-related work exhibited. Two successful works represented the experience of having intellectual disability or being neurodivergent. Lou (2022), a Canadian virtual reality (VR) work, aims to communicate the embodied experience of an Autistic child. Brilliant Australian documentary This is Going to be Big, which won the MIFF Audience Award and the Schools Youth Jury Award, is about a group of high school students with disabilities who put on a school play about Australian music icon John Farnham. While grappling in complex ways with disability, the key creatives for these works have not shared whether they are disabled themselves. The interpretation of disability experience through the lens of nondisabled creators can perpetuate the notion that disabled people are not powerful agents with control over their own lives and experiences.
Indeed, the creators revealed some narrow understandings of disability. In Lou, the main character says, ‘I’m not disabled, I’m Autistic’. This is echoed by their friends and family. While the students featured in This is Going to be Big spoke matter-of-factly about having disabilities, a post-screening panel with the director and some of the teachers undermined this; the overarching message of the panel was that the director did not really make a film about disability, but a coming-of-age story that ‘anyone’ could identify with. These are valid viewpoints – some Autistic and neurodivergent people do not identify as disabled, and films that include disabled subjects or characters do not necessarily have to be aboutdisability. However, this dismissal of disability as a thematic concern across the VR experience and the post-screening discussion of the documentary potentially implies a level of shame around identifying with disability that is not what many disabled people, who take pride in their identity and community, feel. As a proud disabled woman eager to see my community represented on screen, this message from two of the very small number of disability-related works at MIFF was disappointing. It suggests a lack of understanding of politicised disability identity and the strong global history of disability activism that has rejected the ableist idea of disability as inherently negative. With these two works forming a large section of the festival’s disability representation, it inadvertently sent the message to disabled people that openness about our identities is not welcome in the festival space. The disability community would welcome a richer, more politically-engaged curatorial focus on disabled creators.
An inclusive festival?
A successful part of MIFF 2023, and a model for inclusive film exhibition, was the ‘Deaf-led’ screening of The Tuba Thieves. Filmmaker Alison O’Daniel embraced the creative potential of open captions, weaving them into the filmmaking process. The open captions enhanced the cinematic experience. They moved around the screen, capturing a complex relationship between images and words. A film about music, the captions noted the timbre, length, and rhythm of different instruments. At times the captions were poetic, drawing attention to subtle sounds. This session included an introduction and post-session panel with Deaf creatives and Auslan interpreters. With valuable insights for filmmakers, the panel discussed the possibility of using open captions creatively and the importance of designing balanced captions that give enough information without being overwhelming.
However, the session, a centrepiece of the festival’s access strategy, felt isolated. It was targeted specifically at the Deaf community, with the online description of the session noting that, ‘awareness of Deaf culture and language is an advantage, as certain concepts and turns of phrase may not be explained’. It occurred on a Sunday morning and was not livestreamed or recorded. Because MIFF’s trailers were not open captioned, they were not screened, making it stand out as fundamentally different from the rest of the festival’s screenings. A similar feeling encompassed the festival’s only open Audio Description session, a screening of documentary Memory Film: A Filmmakers Diary (Jeni Thornley, 2023). While it was a fantastic opportunity for filmmakers to learn about how audio description can be incorporated into the filmmaking process, the session occurred on a weekday morning and the crowd was sparse. The segregation of these accessible sessions meant that disabled people were not able to fully feel part of the MIFF community, a microcosm of our broader marginalisation across society. It also meant that nondisabled creatives missed out on opportunities to learn about how access can inform new filmmaking practices that enhance screen storytelling. Again, MIFF overlooked opportunities to give broader audiences insight into disability and access.
A friend who attended MIFF described the festival’s access strategy as ‘tinkering around the edges’ of the conventional film festival format, ultimately maintaining ableist expectations of what film festivals – and films themselves – should be. Enthusiastic about disability inclusion but unwilling to employ sweeping change, mainstream film festivals like MIFF must rethink the inaccessible norms of film exhibition to grow their audience and be consistent with their stated values. While MIFF 2023 raised the bar for what disabled people can expect from film festivals, the selectivity of available accessible options and the exclusion of disabled filmmakers demonstrates that we have a long way to go until disabled people have equitable access to film culture and community.
While film festival accessibility remains a ‘neglected and unexplored’ research topic, there are many resources from the disability community available to festivals. Fwd-Doc’s Accessibility Scorecard allows film festivals to receive feedback on their accessibility from patrons. Guides like The Film Festival Guide to Access and A Toolkit for Inclusion and Accessibility offer crucial, practical insights into inclusive film exhibition. Mainstream film festivals that model more effective access practices include Sundance Film Festival and the Sydney International Film Festival. Disability film festivals like The Other Film Festival in Australia, Oska Bright Film Festival in the United Kingdom, and ReelAbilities across North America demonstrate the potential of access practices in enriching the film festival space.
Late disability rights activist Rachel Olivera said that ‘inclusion is not bringing people into what already exists, it is making a new space, a better space for everyone’. As films like The Tuba Thieves demonstrate, accessibility in film exhibition need not inhibit the art of film or the joy of film festivals. True commitment to accessibility can generate something new: a vibrant community of film lovers that celebrates diversity, drives creativity, and elevates voices that are usually silenced.
Anna Debinski (University of Melbourne)
A toolkit for inclusion & accessibility. FWD-Doc, Doc Society and Netflix, 2021. https://www.fwd-doc.org/toolkit(accessed 8 August 2023).
Cossar, A. ‘Welcome’ in Melbourne International Film Festival 71st Edition Program, 2023, p. 3:https://miff.com.au/assets/2023/miff-2023-program-guide-v8-web.pdf (accessed 15 August 2023)
Dawson, L. and Loist, S. ‘Queer/ing Film Festivals: History, Theory, Impact’, Studies in European Cinema, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2018: 1-24.
McNeely, M. ‘Film critic Michael McNeely recaps his Sundance Film Festival experience’, Accessible Media Inc.:https://www.ami.ca/sundance-wrap-up (accessed 21 August 2023).
O’Meara, R, Dunstan, L, Debinski, A. and Ryan, C. Disability and screen work in Australia: Report for industry 2023. Melbourne Disability Institute, 2023: https://disability.unimelb.edu.au/home/projects/community-based-research-program/Disability-and-Screen-Work-in-Australia (accessed 21 August 2023).
People with disability in Australia. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2022:https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/disability/people-with-disability-in-australia/contents/about (accessed 21 August 2023).
Stevens, K. Australian film festivals: Audience, place and exhibition culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
_____. ‘Festival Files: The Living Festival’, Melbourne International Film Festival. https://miff.com.au/miff-archive/festival-files/the-living-festival (accessed 15 August 2023).
The film festival guide to access, Inside Out and Creative Users Project, 2022: https://creativeusers.net/access-workbooks/ (accessed 8 August 2023).
Uzzo, G. ‘Accessible Film Festivals: A Pilot Study’, Bridge: Trends and Traditions in Translation and Interpreting Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2020: 68-85.
Vu, B., Khanam, R., Radhman, M., and Ngiem, S. ‘The Costs of Disability in Australia: A Hybrid Panel-Data Examination’, Health Economics Review, Vol. 10, No. 6, 2020: 1-10.
https://alisonodaniel.com/HOW-TO-CAPTION (accessed 7 August 2023)
https://lespiedsenhaut.com/2023/02/28/about-lou/ (accessed 15 August 2023)
https://miff.com.au/program/film/the-tuba-thieves (accessed 19 August 2023)
https://miff.com.au/blog/access-at-miff-2023 (accessed 20 August 2023)
https://www.fwd-doc.org/film-event-accessibility-scorecard-2023 (accessed 7 August 2023)
 Stevens, Festival Files: The Living Festival. There is a notion of ‘suffering for cinema’ in this MIFF tradition, a disregard of people’s comfort, that is inherently ableist.
 I primarily use ‘identity-first’ language – ‘I am a disabled person’ – to highlight disability as a central, politicised aspect of identity. Some people say ‘I am a person with disability’. This is called ‘person-first’ language. The capitalised ‘Deaf’ refers to people who identify as part of a rich culture and language community. Deaf with a lowercase ‘d’ refers to the general condition of having hearing loss.
 Stevens 2016, p. 4.
 Ibid., pp. 20-21.
 Cossar 2023, p. 3.
 People with Disability in Australia 2022, p. 3.
 Ibid., p. 148.
 Smits 2023, p. 5.
 Smits 2023; Dawson & Loist 2018, p. 3.
 O’Meara et al 2023.
 Fletcher-Watson & May 2018, p. 407.
 People with disability in Australia 2022 pp. 202-357; Vu et al 2020, p. 8.
 People with disability in Australia 2022, pp. 308-377.
 McNeely 2023.
 An exception to this was the ‘Deaf-led’ screening of The Tuba Thieves.
 Lou’s website notes that ‘Lou is a character inspired by our children and other autistic people we have met’, indicating that the creators were not themselves Autistic. See https://lespiedsenhaut.com/2023/02/28/about-lou/. This is Going to Be Big was awarded Bus Stop Films’ ‘Inclusively Made’ certification, in recognition of authentic representation and inclusive filmmaking processes. However, director Thomas Charles Hyland has not identified as disabled.
 Uzzo 2020, p. 68.
 Quoted in The film festival guide to access, p. 12.