Shakila Maharaj loved the movies, but being blind, there were huge gaps in her perception of what was happening on the big screen.
“I went blind relatively late in my early 20s, so I have a very strong visual memory,” Maharaj said.
“I still continued to visualise the world. I continued to watch movies. I would make sense of it on what I could hear, but I never got the full effect. So much is portrayed visually. Initially, I would ask someone to describe the action to me, but patrons got irritated. So I would get someone to fill in the blanks afterwards.”
After a career as an organisational psychologist and human resources specialist, in her “retirement” today, she is a pioneering voice in the new and growing field of audio description: learning and teaching the techniques that will allow the audio description to be commonplace and include the blind fully in what is becoming an increasingly visual world.
Last week saw the launch at the Alliance Française of the first South African movie to have an audio description soundtrack ‒ the ground-breaking 1975 film e’Lollipop by director Ashley Lazarus.
In addition, her company Shazacin is about to launch an equally ground-breaking app that will allow blind people to go to the cinema, plug in their headphones and listen to the audio description and the dialogue without disturbing other cinema-goers. It simply syncs the audio description to the dialogue.
It’s an app she hopes is the basis for so many other uses. She sees it as a way to describe books, to carry health and educational material. “After all, most Covid-19 information is visual,” she says.
It can help with descriptions of scientific and mathematical charts and tables, right down to tours of museums and art galleries. “We even want a description of a walk on Durban’s beachfront promenade.”
“I came across audio description as an art form and found the person behind it, Dr Joe Schneider, in Washington, who has worked with the American Council for the Blind. I formed a strong bond with him and trained under him, and brought him to South Africa in 2012.
“Our lucky break came last year when Smart Exchange included us as an incubation partner with funds to create the app. I transferred all that I know to a young team who come equipped in the area of film production and audio description so we could move it to the next level,” Maharaj says.
Funding from the KZN Film Commission allowed the team to do nine movies, doing e’Lollipop for free. “We’re doing everything ourselves ‒ from creating the descriptions, to voicing them and recording them, to synchronising them with the movie.
“One of the challenges is getting permission from film owners. We also need a place where you can access the film.
“We put out a call to filmmakers to support us. Ashley Lazarus immediately came forward and said we could showcase his movie as an inclusive film.
“e’Lollipop was radical for its time. Today, a friendship between a black and white person is not a great thing ‒ but in that time, when the two communities were so polarised, it was really unique that two boys from different races would live and die for each other,” she says.
“The other need is funds. There’s a lot of equipment. We need a recording studio and different software and technology. It costs R450 per recorded minute, so a 100-minute film costs R45 000. If filmmakers budget it when they make the film, then it’s included in the cost, and it can be available to everybody.
“We need to remember there are 50 million blind people in Africa and one million in South Africa, and that doesn’t look at ageing people with visual impairment. Research shows there are many people for whom it enhances their enjoyment.
“We’re creating a whole new industry, a whole new market, so we’re busy creating a lot of awareness, awareness for blind people themselves, awareness in the film and television industry,” she says.
“My aspiration is that all our TV broadcasters would subscribe to the app. It will create small business opportunities, jobs, skills, and people with visual disabilities can be employed in this world. Creating a description track is one half of the solution, the delivery with the app the other half. Cinemas don’t want to put expensive infrastructure in place to allow bling people to listen independently. The app is a solution. It can also stimulate a whole industry in much the way Uber gave rise to huge growth of small businesses. People can become their own descriptors of content delivered by app.”
The app is expected to launch in November and is free of charge.
Lazarus, 81, has already engaged her team to do the audio description for another movie going into production, called Teacher Wanted.
Author and actuary Sarika Singh has created her own audio description of her latest book that explores the history of Hinduism through the Bhagavad Gita. “It was an ideal opportunity to demonstrate how audio description can enhance a book. You're not just reading the book but can visualise the imagery,” says Maharaj.
“Description isn't as simple as you think. People see what you want to see, and we try as hard as possible to be objective. And a lot of people leave out a lot of things. We try to take in everything. So it takes quite extensive training.
“Subjects like science and maths and technology, which require diagrammatic or graphic imagery, are especially difficult and are lost to many blind people. There’s an art form around describing graphs, and I’m trying to master it to pass it on to the team. And in countries that have gone this route, like Japan and India, it has opened doors.
“We’re creating an inclusive world for us and enabling blind people to become mainstream. People think we live in a world of darkness and rely on other senses, but we need to understand the visual world to participate in the world.”
“A funny thing,” Maharaj says, “Facebook has a feature that when activated describes pictures for blind people. It’s pretty basic, but it’s useful. It described me as a 50-year-old woman. I thought, ‘oh that’s complimentary because I’m older than that.’”
The final word goes to Lazarus in his tribute to her work played before the screening of e’Lollipop this week. “What you have developed in South Africa is not just spectacular technology, what you have created will radiate a message of deep caring, respect and tangible love to our fellow human beings.”
Maharaj is planning a fundraising dinner on the opening night of the Green Diwali Festival in Mitchell Park on October 22 at 6pm.
“The theme is seeing the light through audio description. It will be a formal, glitzy, sit down dinner with entertainment and everything will be described by our team. We hope it will enable us to describe another movie,” she says.
Tickets cost R300 per person. To book go to https://bit.ly/GreenDiwaliDinner.
The Independent on Saturday