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An Epileptic’s Cinematic Journey: Films From My Perspective

As the title indicates, I have epilepsy. If you ran into me on the street, it's not something you'd be able to tell about me by looking. That's not how epilepsy works, generally.

An Epileptic's Cinematic Journey: Films From My Perspective

As the title indicates, I have epilepsy. If you ran into me on the street, it’s not something you’d be able to tell about me by looking. That’s not how epilepsy works, generally. Unless someone has a convulsant seizure, a lot of people (even medical professionals in my experience) won’t “see” the condition.

It’s called invisible disability and this can refer to a whole host of things including (but definitely not limited to) autism, diabetes, and dyslexia. That’s fine by me, I’m not really looking to advertise. But what it means is that there are a lot of things that affect myself and people like me that a non-disabled person doesn’t necessarily consider.

When it comes to epilepsy, I’m generally pretty lucky. My seizures are fairly well-controlled by a number of medications. However, I totally won the epilepsy lottery and I am one of roughly 3% of people who suffer from photosensitive epilepsy. It comes as a surprise to most people, but flashing lights aren’t a major trigger for all people with epilepsy. They are a trigger for me though, among some other random things like intense pain, very low bass, and children on leashes. I may have made up one of those things.

What this presents is a huge issue for when I want to enjoy certain events, like the cinema. Do you have any idea how many films have some kind of strobe lighting effect? So I spend those times during movies with my eyes shut and my hands over my eye lids. Luckily, my husband is awesome and he always lets me know when it’s safe for me to start watching again. However, this does sometimes leave some odd gaps in my viewing experience. So I thought I’d share what it’s like for me, using a few choice examples.

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) - source: Paramount Pictures

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) – source: Paramount Pictures

In Star Trek: Into Darkness, there’s been a major terror attack on Starfleet. In response, a small crew, captained by the one and only Kirk (Chris Pine), has been sent into Klingon territory to hunt the perpetrator. They arrive and…from this point forward I have no idea. Based on sound alone, some intense shit went down. When I was able to open my eyes, suddenly Kirk and John Harrison/Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) are just chatting amicably.

Don’t worry, I got this. Context clues, mofo. Obviously Kirk and his buddies cornered Khan and got him to surrender. No? Wait, so Khan was shooting…And at that point I’m told to shut up from three rows back.

My point here is that I missed out on a pretty crucial plot point in the film because there were so many lasers and muzzle flashes going off. This scene sets up a major aspect of both Khan’s character and his dynamic with Kirk. I actually forced myself to watch it to research this article and so I could see what I missed. So many of the seeds for subtle internal conflict are planted in this sequence. I feel like it changes how my entire perspective on Khan and his end game.

Zoolander (2001)

Zoolander (2001) - source: Paramount Pictures

Zoolander (2001) – source: Paramount Pictures

I think I may have missed roughly 70% of Zoolander due to the insane amount of camera flashes. Don’t get me wrong, that was totally called for by the subject matter of the film, and I have no problem with its utilisation. I just feel a little guilty because I think I might have enjoyed the movie more if I had actually been able to watch it.

But due to a constant barrage of camera flashes, which I suppose if I’m behind completely honest is mostly in the opening, I spent a lot of the movie covering my over-sensitive optic nerves. It was so frustrating to be enjoying the film and then Derek walks outside and SNAP SNAP SNAP. My hands go back over my face.

Here’s the real problem with that. Much of the humour in Zoolander is physical – I’m looking at you, Blue Steel. Without the combination, I found a lot of Ben Stiller’s performance grating. I know I’m in the minority here, and that this film is hugely loved. But it’s not my fault. Again, I’m missing out key aspects of the film, which is very much a visual medium. Frankly, I think I’m just another victim of paparazzi culture.

I’m giving up my dreams of a Kardashian-esque lifestyle now.

The Hunger Games Franchise

The Hunger Games (2012) - source: Lionsgate

The Hunger Games (2012) – source: Lionsgate

I’ve not specified a particular instalment of the Hunger Games (2012) franchise because a few of the films caused issues for me. The first film in particular utilised a lot of handheld camera techniques. This is something not generally considered when it comes to photosensitivity, but that movement can mimic flickering lights. It’s about the frequency of lights and darks changing on the screen, and when a camera runs through the woods, it tends to be the same as when you’re driving down a wooded road and the sun shines through the leaves.

That’s a nightmare for me, and every damn action film that decides to go for that “intense” and “in your face” vibe just leaves me having a mild seizure (yes, that’s a thing). That’s why I embraced Mad Max: Fury Road so heartily – the editing and camera work made it so I could actually enjoy the film. The Oscar-winning editor, Margaret Sixel, discusses her thought process here, and describes how important it is not to lose your audience in the action.

Aside from that basket of fun, once Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) becomes the super warrior princess or whatever, there’s lots of gun battles. Watching Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) was a constant game of hide and seek for me. In fact, my husband and I joke that I didn’t watch the film so much as listen to a lot of gunfire and wait for him to go, “Okay, you’re clear…no wait.” It was so unenjoyable that I haven’t bothered with Part 2 (2015).

Twin Peaks (1990)

Twin Peaks (1990) - source: Lynch/Frost Productions

Twin Peaks (1990) – source: Lynch/Frost Productions

Spoiler Alert ahead. Though if you haven’t seen Twin Peaks yet, go watch it immediately. You can read the rest of this later.

Primarily, I’m referring to the sequences in the Black Lodge, which fine, yes, is from a TV show. I apologise for a slightly misleading title. But forgive me for that and then think about the true awesome surreality of David Lynch’s twisted mind that I’m missing out on. Being entirely honest, I peeked every now and then but I couldn’t maintain a fixed gaze on the scene, and not because of its highly disturbing nature.

However, I can kind of forgive David Lynch for this because the use of a strobe effect in the Black Lodge adds to its bizarreness, its disturbing vibe, and the overall tone of the end of the show. In fact, the mental state that the strobes forced me into really just works with David Lynch’s creepy universe.

It also helps that the strobe frequency isn’t so quick that I was entirely unable to sneak peeks, even if it caused me some issues. I believe that this altered mental state was something Lynch sought to achieve by using the strobe, because that kind of lighting has a slight effect on all of us, even if it doesn’t cause seizures in most. That’s why I’m less frustrated by its use here than in my next example.

Kick-Ass (2010)


Kick-Ass (2010) – source: Lionsgate

I’m using Kick-Ass as an example because it also very overtly used strobe lighting effects in a pivotal sequence, however, unlike in Twin Peaks, the use of strobes didn’t add anything to the scene other than make it “cool”. That’s fine, I suppose, but it’s frustrating. To be clear, the scene I’m referring to is when Hit-Girl (Chloë Grace Mortez) swoops in to rescue her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage).

I’ve tried several times to watch this scene to completion, and I physically can’t without seriously jeopardising my health. Unlike Twin Peaks, I don’t believe Matthew Vaughn was looking to alter the mind of the viewer in any way or achieve anything other than an interesting visual. And this is where I draw my line, because it has to be somewhere.

I’m not here to tell filmmakers and filmgoers that never may strobe effects or handheld camera be used. That doesn’t really seem fair. Someone recently said to me, “But venues all have to be wheelchair accessible.” And that’s true, but the difference is, as I pointed out to them, putting ramps in doesn’t affect the experience of any other participants. If I were to start a campaign demanding that strobes stopped being used, that affects everyone. Some people might enjoy strobe lights, and I’m not here to tell them they can’t.

What I am here to do is ask you to consider what viewing movies is like for someone like me. As you can see from this list, almost any kind of movie may feature elements which I physically need to avoid for my own well-being. And this spreads into every day life. A lot of concert venues utilise strobes, even being out on a night with friends – if some flash-happy camera person is bopping about that can really mess me up.

So here’s the litmus test I’d like to put out to filmmakers in particular: is it necessary? Does your use of this particular lighting or camera effect add to the story? Can you justify it in terms other than “looks cool”? If so, I don’t have any problems with covering my eyes and letting the people who are able to enjoy, wholeheartedly enjoy.

Where do you think we should draw the line between inaccessible and undesirable? Tell me in the comments.

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Jacqui is an American/British filmmaker/photographer who just thoroughly enjoys studying and writing about cinema. She's currently working on her PhD in film, focusing on American experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage. In her "spare time" she runs CameraShy, CIC which, among other things, organises the Drunken Film Festival and Doccy McDocFest.

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