The first World Deaf Cinema Festival (WDCF) — hosted by Gallaudet University — sold out of tickets for the other events, leaving the film screenings and the awards ceremony to be the only chance for the community to participate in the festival. Throughout the festival, many workshops proved to be beneficial, but also time-consuming. Here, wrapped in a short summary, are some highlights of the workshops.
Gallaudet President Hurwitz said in the welcoming speech, “Film is the perfect medium to preserve deaf culture and sign language. It is the most effective, clear way to show the world what deaf culture is like through deaf eyes.”
Hurwitz continued, “The American culture is enriched by our deaf culture; just like how the African American or Latino cultures enrich the American culture. Today, more and more ASL and Deaf Studies courses are being offered all over the nation for all ages — from babies to adults.”
“As we increase the number of successful deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the film industry, the more it affects the movie industry, and the more accurately the world can see the deaf culture through deaf lens,” he concluded.
Dr. Carol Padden, who has been researching sign language structure for the last thirty years, presented some fascinating facts about deaf people in the world. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 80 percent of the world’s deaf people do NOT live in America, with the highest concentration of deaf people located in northern Africa and the Middle East. There are 130 different sign languages documented around the world, but Padden stated that, realistically, there may be 1,000 to 2,000 sign languages.
Padden conducted one of her research projects in one small village in southern Israel, and after spending some time there she said that “I found out that the village not even a mile away had many deaf members and a different sign language — it just amazed me.”
Not only that, but when she “asked how many deaf people were in the village, they didn’t know. They don’t count. There are no cliques based on hearing levels, ability to talk, or age. There are no deaf schools there, either. Our sign language is tied to schools, deaf associations, but elsewhere they survive without them. Both the hearing and the deaf interact, both old and young as well.”
“That is an interesting story. Good films begin with a question, and films tell the stories. Think of where the deaf people are, and don’t limit yourself to the stories we find here,” Padden said.
The “Writing for the Screen” workshop called for more deaf scriptwriters and recognition. Many deaf writers are used to writing plays — 34 deaf writers have been identified as being responsible for writing 181 plays — but many of them don’t get enough publicity or recognition. The numbers are even lower among deaf scriptwriters, as there is not enough knowledge of content in that field. Scripts about deaf people that get to Hollywood are usually written by hearing people, and their portrayal of deaf people usually wind up being flawed. A familiar lament was repeated: how do we change that? There is the Writers Guild of America, which supports scriptwriters. However, no organization exists for deaf people to share their scripts with each other and get feedback and support. As Ben Bahan, a Gallaudet Professor and researcher in the ASL department pointed out, the word “writers” in scriptwriters scare many deaf people away.
However, as seeing as that sign language has many cinematic and visual elements, people can sign scripts! In theory, deaf people with sign language as a first language should be better scriptwriters, as they can visualize and express stories more effectively. All they need to do is to videotape themselves and eventually have it translated into words.
The “Acting for the Screen: Connecting with Directors” panel, with actors Howie Seago, Russel Harvard, Soshannah Stern, and Terrylene Sacchetti, also offered up many stories and experiences of acting and working with directors as deaf individuals. All of the actors agreed that it was pretty challenging to present deaf views since they are expected to fit into the director’s vision of how the movie should be. It’s not their place to correct it or approach the directors about it—they should wait for the directors to approach them first. The actors resolved this problem, whenever they faced it, by expressing their concerns and offering solutions and compromises.
From horrible interpreting services and funny misunderstandings to protecting the integrity of their Deaf culture, the actors all agreed that acting is not easy, but it is also fun and educating. However, they did stress that deaf actors need to make sure to never allow themselves to be run over. They must establish a precedent for future deaf actors and actresses and realize their impact on the deaf community, the panel concluded.
Directing is no easy task, either. “Best cinema is not about dialogue. It is about emotions, feeling, and action. Use the power of imagery … It’s about transcending into the heart, soul, and the subconscious,” said director Chuck Martinez. However, even with excellent quality and stories, movies must be marketable. William Mager, a producer from England said, “Your film must target both the deaf and hearing people.” His film, ‘Hands Solo,’ is a comedy about a deaf porn star — the title and the story sounded interesting and drew strong reactions. His film was successful at both hearing and deaf festivals.
“How can you make your films interesting for both audiences? Ask yourself, ‘Who wants to watch this?’ That’s how you make your career successful,” Mager said. His film won the Best Mini-15 award. This tied into Jules Dameron’s forum discussing whether films should have audio. With appropriate audio, deaf films can appeal to anyone. Low-quality audio can ruin the whole movie experience for the hearing audience, so audio use is extremely important to perfect.
Paul Kiel, a videographer for Deaf Images in Missouri, said that he was inspired by the formation of the WDCF into establishing an official exchange of independent films internationally. “Deaf Indies Group-International Trading Company (DIG-IT) will have branches in various countries,” Kiel said.
“Starting now with the USA, Canada, London, Scotland, France, Singapore, Japan and other countries that will join in, I asked those guys to step on board with me to spearhead this drive for distribution to get our name and networking out there. I am working on a website for that now,” Kiel said. “I thank the WDCF for giving me something that I have been looking for.”
Kiel also commented that he noticed that many younger people were getting involved at the film festival, compared to the other film festivals that he attended previously. The concept of social media is spreading out and reaching out to people at a younger age, he noted as well.
Photo credit: Angela Cannella