Kawase Naomi (1969) made Radiance, about a woman who writes audio descriptions for blind cinemagoers. “I think that we, who can see the film, need to learn from them.”
Films for the blind: a concept that takes a while to digest. But it exists. In The Netherlands, for example, the Earcatch app, freely available for smartphones, provides audio descriptions for more than a hundred Dutch films and TV series. The app registers the sounds of the film, so it knows exactly where you are in the story, and then describes the visuals in between the dialogues. Which you can hear through your head phones, so you’re not bothering anyone. This way, the blind can also go to the cinemas.
In Japan, audio descriptions have existed a little longer. Master director Kawase Naomi (The Mourning Forest, An) references it in Radiance. In the film, Misako, who writes and records audio descriptions (and who can, of course, see), gets feedback from a panel of blind film lovers – including a frustrated photographer, who has very nearly lost all of his eyesight.
During this interview about Radiance, Kawase is as elegant and serious as her films. As she weighs her words and underlines them with calm movements of her hands, she keeps looking the interviewer attentively in the eye – even though she knows he does not understand Japanese and has to wait for the interpreter. But as it turns out, she’s used to this.
Kawase Naomi: “You might be surprised to hear that the sound designer of Radiance is French. He doesn’t understand Japanese. So he couldn’t understand the dialogues. But he understood the world we wanted to create. A good sound design includes things like distant music or the sound of the ocean. There’s drama there too; that is how a world starts to sound like it exists. And also, my editor is French. She doesn’t understand Japanese either, ha ha! That works, because editing is not just a combination of words and images, but also gives birth to certain emotions you want to evoke within your audience. My films start with me, so they are inherently Japanese. But I want to be universal, as well. And I think these people give me that. It’s not about countries, it’s not about language, it’s about sharing the same kind of sensibility regardless, as a person. Human to human.”
“Just as there is meaning beyond words, there’s meaning beyond sight” – Kawase Naomi
And just as there is meaning beyond words, there’s meaning beyond sight, claims Kawase. “Those blind moviegoers are very sensitive. Because they can’t see, they have to trust their imagination. And they feel something. And for us, who can see the film, I think we need to learn from that. To be able to feel film. Not just watch, but hear it. There’s more to films than what’s on the screen.”
The key to understanding the blind movie experience is, implies Radiance, that the blind moviegoer experiences films with a unavoidable sense of loss, of deficit, of absence. The photographer who slowly turns blind, provides that crucial insight to Misako: his struggle with his loss of vision, which is concurrently a loss of profession, calling, and identity, motivates Misako to accept her own loss: a mother disappearing into dementia and a father she never knew – an autobiographical element by Kawase.
It is a recurring theme in the film maker’s oeuvre: ordinary people, learning to accept an existential loss. Finding comfort in nature, which itself lives by continually dying. This in turn leads to the insight that impermanence is a prerequisite for beauty. As is said in Radiance, “Nothing is more beautiful than what disappears before our eyes”: a cloud in the sky, the sun on your face, a moment of silence.
Kawase: “If something’s beautiful, it’s because it’s not permanent. It’s ephemeral. Like the beloved cherry blossoms in Japan, which are in full bloom maybe three days each year. And maybe it’s the same with our lives. Because we also don’t live forever. And those moments go by so fast, they are so transient, and that’s why they are dear to us. The people we get to encounter within that limited time, we want to spend time with. Exactly because time is precious.”
Accepting that impermanence, is something Misako finds hard to do in the movie. In her first audio description, she describes an old man who looks upwards as ‘full of hope’ – but that’s too much interpretation, according to the blind panel. Misako admits that she wants films to provide hope. When she then visits the actor who played the old man, and asks for his interpretation, he answers: “Could it be he sees something beyond the wish to live or die?”
This reflects back on the film itself. Cinema is the paradoxical art of capturing the transient. What you see has past, but lives in the moment. In that sense, film itself goes beyond live and death. By slowly realizing this, with the help of the photographer, Misako learns to find the poetry with which to bring her visual input to live for the blind, beyond simply describing facts and inferences.
Filmmaker Mike Leigh once said that during some takes he didn’t look at the actors, but only listened whether it sounded believable. Did Kawase ever close her eyes during the making of Radiance? “Hm”, she says and she – true story – closes her eyes for a few seconds, to think. “Not when I’m shooting or editing. But when I really want to take a look at myself, I close my eyes. And go to a place that’s very quiet. Like when I write screenplays. Because otherwise, too many unwanted thoughts will come to you. And it can confuse you. So, to ground myself, to calm myself, I close my eyes.”
Then there’s only one final question: will Radiance be released in Japan with an audio description? Naomi Kawase smiles: “Yes.”
Radiance screened during IFFR and will be released in Dutch cinemas on 15 March 2018.
Photo in header: Photo: via Screen Daily. Interview: Kees Driessen.