TIFF 2016: Accessibility in Review

I saw 55 films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and reviewed 40 of them. The films themselves varied in quality, which is to be expected, but accessibility-wise,  I firmly believe that TIFF failed to be proactive this year in terms of thinking about inclusion.

Stories have recently broke about scantily-clad women at TIFF parties when TIFF is apparently attempting to welcome more female programmers and directors. This sends a mixed signal, at best, to the community, and at worst, perpetuates messages of misogyny and inequality. With regards to accessibility issues in particular, the way in which many venues experienced accessibility problems is concerning.

The Scotiabank Theatre was used as a public venue despite having problems with its escalators all summer long. Throughout the festival, the venue’s escalators were on and off intermittently, and there was no transparency with the public about this matter. I also believe that people in wheelchairs would have had many challenges there in terms of finding accessible washrooms. I also noted construction in front of Ryerson Theatre that would have proven difficult to navigate around. TIFF should really consider their choice of venues, because it could get to the point where one would not be able to see a certain film because it plays at a certain venue.

If you have been following our work at Dork Shelf, you will have noticed that I was to review two of three CaptiView-enabled films at TIFF 2016: A Monster Calls and Boys in the Trees. Monster was shown at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and when I arrived and inquired about the CaptiView machine, TIFF management was unaware about what CaptiView was and that this was a CaptiView-enabled film. Luckily, the staff at the cinema took charge and a man who worked for Hot Docs checked on me to ensure that the system was working for me. At Scotiabank, for Boys in the Trees, despite coming very early and inquiring about the machine, I was told that staff were unaware about CaptiView or that this was a CaptiView screening, then very quickly told me that everything would be A-OK. My concerns were founded when the CaptiView did not work and I was forced to walk out of one of the best films I have seen this year.


TIFF later told CBC that this film was not advertised with CaptiView. I looked at the e-mail I was sent prior to registering my first ticket package. I didn’t make a mistake. They did. They promised an accessible show, and failed to deliver. They failed to communicate effectively with all levels of staff in both CaptiView screenings, and they failed to communicate with the community at large about the use of CaptiView technology. Perhaps, if they had, they’d have been held to a higher standard for ensuring the maintenance of this technology. 

I’m grateful to the support of the Dork Shelf, which ran my review of Boys in the Trees after the festival had already ended. The film’s distributor, Mushroom Pictures, learned about my experiences through the CBC and through our tweets about their screening and reached out to provide us with an accessible copy. It’s because of Mushroom Pictures, not TIFF, that I saw this film. I wonder how many other films have fallen through the cracks simply because they were not presented in an accessible format?

TIFF also needs to be clear about films that are only partially subtitled. For example, Toni Erdmann and Apprentice are advertised as subtitled, but Apprentice has English subtitles for everything, including the English-spoken aspects, whereas Toni Erdmann is only subtitled 20% of the time, when characters speak German. I was lost for Toni Erdmann, and it was a film I was truly excited to see and considered to be one the best of the fest. It was luck that this film was already assigned to another writer, as I would not have been able to review it.

The CaptiView did not work and I was forced to walk out of one of the best films I have seen this year.

For someone committing this much time and money to the event as I was, I should receive assistance from TIFF. And, there was some. My lobby pass was useful in terms of getting me good seats if I was able to come early to the screening. However, sometimes I have films back to back and I knew that getting a good seat would be somewhat of a crapshoot if the first film ran long. A solution could be that tickets correspond to numbered seats as is done in Cineplex AVX, IMAX and VIP screenings, as well as at Landmark Cinemas in Kingston.


I chose to experience the rush line in order to try and see Frantz. This is also inaccessible. When people walk up and down the line yelling and screaming titles of films and telling you how many seats are left for each one and asking you to line up in different lines or to follow them through an insane, packed, cranky crowd – well, it’s anxiety-provoking for sure, especially for someone who can’t hear what they’re saying or trying to make you do. I asked for accommodations and was given a small stool that could house half of my butt cheek. I appreciated the “chair” but I’m deaf-blind. A chair doesn’t help me, except when I want to be lazy. People with disabilities are not served well with a “one size fits all” approach. Furthermore, I wouldn’t wish my experience of stumbling around the balcony seats on anyone – the rush line almost always lets in once the film has already started, this makes blind people of us all and disturbs the people who bought tickets in advance and are trying to get into the world of the film they’re about to watch.

As of this writing, I’m scheduled to attend a meeting with Laura Ryan, who is TIFF’s Customer Experience Director, on Tuesday, October 11th. I am bringing along Liviya Mendelsohn, Inclusion Director of the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Artistic Director of ReelAbilities Film Festival, and, Bea Jolley, an intervenor and friend that was my companion for nearly half of the films I saw. It is my hope that the actions of the Dork Shelf, the efforts of Mushroom Pictures, the interest of the CBC, and TIFF’s willingness to be more proactive in matters of inclusion bring about change next year – otherwise, we’ll republish my Open Letter next year and do all this again.