Marlee Matlin and fellow Sundance Film Festival jurors Jeremy O Harris and Eliza Hittman left the premiere of Magazine Dreams on Friday (20 January) night after subtitles failed to appear onscreen.
CODA star Matlin has been deaf since she was 18 months old and has long been a spokesperson for the hearing-impaired community.
Magazine Dreams tells the story of Killian Maddox (Jonathan Majors) who “lives with his ailing veteran grandfather, obsessively working out between court-mandated therapy appointments and part-time shifts at a grocery store where he harbours a crush on a friendly cashier”, per the festival’s synopsis.
Joana Vicente, the CEO of the Sundance Institute, said in a statement to The Associated Press on Saturday (21 January) that the closed captioning device, which relies on Wi-Fi, had been checked before the screening and was working, but malfunctioned nonetheless.
“Our team immediately worked with the devices in that venue to test them again for the next screening and the device worked without any malfunction,” Vicente said.
“Our goal is to make all experiences (in person and online) as accessible as possible for all participants. Our accessibility efforts are, admittedly, always evolving and feedback helps drive it forward for the community as a whole.”
Representatives for Matlin declined to comment when contacted by The Independent.
Accessibility at film festivals has been a major topic for years, and the incident once again spotlighted how organizers are trying to make changes to accommodate all fans.
Vicente said her team has been working hard in that area, but acknowledged there is more to be learned.
“We are committed to improving experiences & belonging for all festival attendees,” the statement read.
“We consider accessibility as one of the primary drivers of institutional excellence and this work is done in partnership with film teams.”
According to Variety, which first reported news of the walkout, the jury sent a signed letter to festival filmmakers begging them to allow “open caption DCP” prints to screen.
“We have all travelled to Utah to celebrate independent film and those who devote their lives to making them,” the letter reportedly read.
“There’s a thrill to sit in a room with others who love films and cheer for them together and Sundance has been an important place for each of us to do that over our varied careers. The U.S. independent cinema movement began as a way to make film accessible to everyone, not just those with the most privileges among us. As a jury our ability to celebrate the work that all of you have put into making these films has been disrupted by the fact that they are not accessible to all three of us.”
Vicente said Matlin and her fellow jurors would see Magazine Dreams in the coming days.
The Sundance Film Festival runs through 29 January.
Additional reporting from Associated Press