Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Seen + heard: The Maine Deaf Film Festival shows everyone a new world

Published in the Portland Phoenix

These could easily be stories of alienation, of separation, of frustration. And those are here. But they are not in the majority of the fare at the Maine Deaf Film Festival, to be held on Saturday, April 15, on USM’s Portland campus.

Certainly there are the poignant, heart-wrenching stories of aloneness, of confusion, of fleeting connections, like in Stille Liebe, a Swiss film made in 2001 whose name, translated from the German, means “Secret Love.” Stille Liebe follows the life of a nun, played by famed European actress Emmanuelle Laborit, who was born deaf and has made a career of playing deaf characters in films that have won countless awards all across the continent.

But even as the film depicts her discovery of, and connection with, a deaf pickpocket from Latvia, and the change the relationship prompts in her life, it has another twist right out in front of everyone: “Stille,” in German, means not just “secret.” It also means “silent.”

A number of these films have puns and jokes in their names, as their deaf creators and actors play with a language not entirely their own, with the title No Talking Allowed, for example.

And that film also has what may be the most insightful look at deaf culture for hearing people — exploring the things hearing people do that drive deaf people crazy, as well as deaf people’s fears of a hearing world.

“We try to pick films that our deaf audience will identify with,” says USM linguistics lecturer John Dunleavy, one of the event organizers, who is deaf.

The concept that people have to be — or at least act — hearing to be “normal” is also explored in the British film Chronic Embarrassment, in which deaf people, as they often do, go to nightclubs pretending to be hearing because, well, nobody can really hear in a club. (The British Sign Language used in the film means the subtitles will be useful even for deaf audience members, who are likely to know American Sign Language best. They will recognize some of the signs but not all of them, and may be particularly confused by the fingerspelling alphabet used in Britain, which uses both hands, rather than just one, as with ASL.)

At a press screening (which only the Phoenix attended, to the shame of the other media around the city), Dunleavy, USM linguistics lecturer Brenda Schertz (both teachers of ASL), and several of their students explained some of the films’ subtle nuances.

Text, Batteries, and Earwax posits two divergent sub-cultures against each other, the “deaf culture,” in which people embrace signing and do not try to learn to talk, and the “oral culture,” in which people (often with partial hearing) do learn to talk, attempting to function as hearing people, and not always learning to sign.

There are also some straight-up silly films, including an eight-short series called “Pinky Tells the Real Story,” in which deaf actor and director Pinky Aiello explores the virtues and pitfalls of the Video Relay Service, one of the technologies hearing people pay for in our phone bills (grouped under the Universal Service Fund). With the VRS system, a replacement for the TTY device (which itself was barely a step above a telegraph), a deaf person can use sign language, combined with a video camera and a high-speed Internet connection, to communicate, through an interpreter, with a hearing person over the telephone.

Aiello’s shorts are laughably funny, if you understand the concepts she’s working with, including the idea that a person who is Too Far from the screen (the title of one of the shorts) is effectively whispering to the interpreter, who can barely see the signs. Many of the conceits treated in these films are inside jokes, but the frustration a deaf person has with an automated-answering system (in Get Real Live Person) is universal.

There are pictures here of a culture few of us will ever see — a thriving, vibrant culture with not just a lot of signs, but also a powerful voice.

Maine Deaf Film Festival | April 15, 1-10 pm | Luther Bonney Auditorium, USM, Portland | "inside deaf culture" films 1-3:30 pm | film discussion 3:30-3:45 pm | "telling it like it is" films 3:45-4:15 pm | film discussion with Pinky Aiell 4:30-5 pm | reception 5-6:30 pm | "British humor" films 6:30-7:15 pm | film discussion 7:15-7:30 pm | "to be deaf or not to be deaf" films 7:30-8 pm | feature film Stille Liebe (Secret Love) 8-9:30 pm | short films 9:30-10:30 pm | $15 full day, $8 half day | 207.780.4989 | TTY 207.780.4069

On the Web
Maine Deaf Film Festival: