Sundance 2023: Q&A with ‘The Tuba Thieves’ Director, Alison O’Daniel
When a series of tuba thefts left Southern California high schools without their bellowing brass, the media’s tunnel focus on the thieves felt neglectful to visual artist and filmmaker, Alison O’Daniel.
“I had a rebellious reaction to the way they were being reported,” says O’Daniel. “I decided I was going to make a film called ‘The Tuba Thieves,’ but it wouldn’t focus on the thieves because the reporting was so obsessed with the thieves.”
O’Daniel premiered ‘The Tuba Thieves’–a film she wrote, directed, and captioned at the Sundance Film Festival 2023, where we caught up to get her thoughts on captions, film access, and the creative challenges and opportunities of translating sound into text.
First off, congrats on premiering ‘The Tuba Thieves’ here at Sundance after an exciting 11-year filmmaking journey. We had the pleasure of screening your film earlier, but we’d love a quick synopsis for our audience.
Alison: Thank you. ‘The Tuba Thieves’ is a film that is structured around this three-year period of time where tubas were stolen from 12 different high schools across Southern California.
There are two main characters. One’s name is Nyke Prince–she’s a d/Deaf woman who in real life has a relationship to drumming. Her storyline is balancing fiction and nonfiction.
The other main character’s name is Geovanny Marroquin–he was the drum major at Centennial High School in Compton, California.
The film also has an angle on noise pollution and the omnipresence of noise pollution in everyone’s life. It’s ultimately a film about the perception of sound in Los Angeles.
I was really curious about a more expansive listening project response to the thieves. I wanted to direct and write a film from that position of a composer and have composers actually start as the writers–or something like that.
‘The Tuba Thieves’ leans heavily on captions for shaping the narrative. Spoken dialogue is infrequent, so the audience’s awareness of non-verbal sounds is heightened. What’s informed your perspective on captions?
Alison: I was really inspired by transforming how awful the experience was.
I used to get really angry–I still get really angry if I see captions that censor–if there’s a curse word and it’s changed or marked out.
But then I’m d/Deaf/hard of hearing, so I can hear well enough to know if there’s a discrepancy.
I have heard and experienced that discrepancy enough to just be like, “What does that say about whoever’s censoring this–what their perception of what the Deaf community should have access to?”
So it’s not just not having access to whole big things, but also not having access to the details that make something colorful.
There can be a flattening out for the Deaf community when we don’t have access–but also when the access is badly done.
“So it’s not just not having access to whole big things, but also not having access to the details that make something colorful.”
Your film gives an intimate glimpse into the Deaf experience. As a d/D/HoH filmmaker, what shifts in film access and captions have you seen since 2011?
Alison: From 2013 to 2018, I basically made 10 short films or scenes from the film. In that period, I didn’t see any development–none, until 2018.
Since 2018, I think a few things have happened. Crip Camp came out, which was amazing. Before it came out, I was part of Sundance’s first accessibility impact initiative, which was really amazing because it brought together Jim Lebrecht from Crip Camp–Rodney Evans, who made Vision Portraits, was there.
I have always been really interested in talking with other disabled artists about how our accessibilities can conflict–and how that can be interesting to work with.
I remember sitting through the first or the second screening of Crip Camp, and I was shocked because it didn’t have captions.
I was just like, “What? What’s happening? This movie of all movies? What?” And then, they had Netflix behind them, so people complained, then Netflix immediately delivered captioning.
So our fourth screening had captioning–open captioning. Jim was very open about his limitations in learning about it. Now he’s the biggest advocate.
After that, various film directors reached out. I interviewed Darius Marder, who made Sound of Metal. Another director reached out to me to read a script that was within the world of deafness.
“I have always been really interested in talking with other disabled artists about how our accessibilities can conflict–and how that can be interesting to work with.”
Sam Green, who premiered last year with ‘32 Sounds’ asked me for help.
It was an interesting feeling because I’d been making this film since 2011. In my first film, I was playing with the role of open captioning, so I wasn’t new to this.
I was sort of like, oh my gosh, I’ve been working on this film for so long, and I don’t own this, but I am developing something here.
Encouraging strides in film access since 2018, but open captions still aren’t the norm for in-person screenings. What are the biggest barriers for filmmakers to add open captions in theaters?
Alison: People may think that this is an economic barrier, but actually, economics shouldn’t be the reason that we do or don’t do something–do or don’t create access.
Access, period. Access is the reason for access.
It’s kind and it’s just the right thing to do.
I’d like to think that most filmmakers would be open to it and want their films to be accessible, and that most of them just haven’t had any personal experience with it.
I know there are some anecdotes of people that just don’t want that visual space taken up. However, I’m sure those same people would be really happy to have a translation for other countries.
So that’s why I choose to think that everyone would probably be okay with it, for the most part–filmmakers.
There’s this idea that it’s really too expensive, but there are [speech-to-text] tools out there that can make it less expensive.
“I know there are some anecdotes of people that just don’t want that visual space taken up. However, I’m sure those same people would be really happy to have a translation for other countries.”
I do think that there is this pervasive invisibility in diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives that’s been happening for the last however many years.
Disability can still be the invisible thing that’s left off.
When people are talking about really working hard to get more filmmakers of color, more queer and non-binary filmmakers, more Indigenous filmmakers, we’re also part of that conversation.
Those in the disability community really benefit from the push to support other filmmakers in other identity positions.
Do you think the surge in negative press about caption and subtitle mishaps is enough of a catalyst to drive widespread access improvements in film?
Alison: I think it’s too bad that shame is frequently the cause of change. A lot of people feel like that’s too bad. But people’s fear of doing the wrong thing is one of the ways that change happens, unfortunately, in this age.
I sat and listened to a panel–actually the two panels that I sat in on this week that I didn’t have anything to do with it, I was just in the audience. In both panels, accessibility came up.
In one of the panels, the Firelight panel, the Indigenous artists were talking about ‘The Tuba Thieves,’ how they had seen it and were really starting to think about what accessibility looks like in their community. All of us from ‘The Tuba Thieves’ were sitting there, just like, yes.
The other panel I was watching–I think it was, Jeremy O. Harris? He was the other juror with Marlee. He was speaking about that experience with Marlee. It was really interesting to watch him talk about how now in his films or in his work, as a playwright, he wants to really develop and think about accessibility. It was fascinating to watch him.
He started to say, “For people who are hearing impaired, oh wait, I think that’s not what I’m supposed to say. I’m supposed to say…” And then someone behind me, I think it was our sign language interpreter, screamed out, “Hard of hearing.”
It was amazing to see someone so willing to be like, “Oh, that’s not the right term.” And was showing his education and his transformation and his willingness to just be like, “I just said the wrong thing. Okay, I’m going to say the right thing now and make this effort.”
For people to not be operating from a place of shame–but a place of education, like, “I’m in the middle of practice and learning and changing–I think that’s a really beautiful place for all of us to work from because there’s always a lot to learn.
I think that’s also the case for institutions like Sundance or many film festivals around the world. We’re all in this, trying to make it better, trying to change the industry.
“For people to not be operating from a place of shame–but a place of education… I think that’s a really beautiful place for all of us to work from because there’s always a lot to learn.”
Your approach to captioning is creative and experimental, at times [STR E T C H I N G] on-screen text or flipping it upside down–requesting a rhetorical sensitivity from viewers. How much detail or poeticism should be instilled into a caption? What does the interplay between access and aesthetic look like for you?
There can be misunderstanding sometimes when terms like “creative captioning” are used, that what we’re wanting is some poetry that really moves far away.
I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s actually a missed opportunity for a space where you can really add a level of detail and challenge yourself to be succinct, but also truly descriptive.
I don’t want to be distracted by the captions.
I want them to function, but also open up a space for the depth of sound.