The Deaf Film Festival

By Adam Hartzell

Originally from Berea, Ohio, Adam Hartzell now lives in San Francisco where he's nurtured a strong interest in Korean film. He manages the bibliography at Darcy Paquet's Korean film website,, where he also contributes many reviews and essays. Currently he is working on an essay about HONG Sang-soo's The Power of Kangwon Province for a soon to be published book on Korean and Japanese film.


Bangkok Dangerous

The film Amistad (1997) portrays an important event in United States Abolitionist history. A group of African Mende were captured near Sierra Leone and smuggled into Cuba via a Portuguese slave ship. They were smuggled into Cuba in order to work around the treaty signed in 1817 by England and Spain prohibiting the transatlantic slave trade. The Spaniards who purchased the slaves needed to purchase them in Cuba to circumvent this treaty. However, on route to the United States from Cuba, the Africans rebelled. Although they were able to guide the ship back to Africa by day, at night, the surviving Spaniards sailed the ship towards the United States where the Africans were eventually jailed and their fate decided by the U.S. courts. Eventually, it was determined the Africans were never slaves under international law and their freedom was returned to them.

Although an important tale amongst many important tales to tell from the history of the United States, and the world, enslaving fellow men and women, two important men from another important history are missing from Spielberg's lesson. These men are Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet who were the initial translators for the Africans until more suitable translators could be found. The important history of which they were a part is the history of the Deaf in the United States. Clerc is the Deaf Frenchman whom Gallaudet met in England and convinced to return to the United States with him to improve the education of the Deaf in the United States. These two men were responsible for improving the opportunities available for the Deaf and providing a foundation to survive later battles with those who wished to oppress Sign Language. Clerc and Gallaudet were chosen as initial translators for the Africans because Sign Language's basis in pantomime allows one to transcend some oral linguistic barriers.(1)

And it is the absence of this history that underscores the need for a Deaf Film Festival, such as the one that was held at the Pacific Film Archives on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, from February 21st through the 23rd. Three feature-length films representing Deaf Culture were shown, one made by a Deaf director, Peter Wolf's I Love You, But . . . (United States, 1994), one made in collaboration with a Hearing and Deaf director, Yutaka Osawa and Akihiro Yonaiyama's I Love You (Japan, 2000), and one made by two Hearing directors, Danny and Oxide Pang's Bangkok Dangerous (Thailand, 2000). Also included were a group of European Deaf Shorts, Silent Film (Malcolm Venville, England, 1996), Egypt (Kathryn Resetarits, Austria, 1996), Alice and the Aurifactor (Jorg Fockele, Germany, 1995), Dancer from a Silence of 100 dB (Antti Raike, Finland, 1995), and No Way Out (Cornelis "Con" Mehlum, Norway, 2001). Two lectures took place, one conducted by Jane Norman, PhD, Professor of Communication Studies at Gallaudet University(2) who looked at the complicated task of defining Deaf Cinema and another conducted by John S. Schuchman, author of Hollywood Speaks: Deafness and the Film Entertainment Industry (1988) who addressed the portrayals of the Deaf by Hollywood.

Deaf Culture: A Primer

Before I go any further, I must address Deaf Culture. Whenever I mention Deaf Culture to Hearing people, they often note they'd never much thought about the Deaf having a culture. The first thing a Hearing person needs to learn about Deaf Culture is that Deaf-centric Deaf people have little, if any, desire to hear. Knowing this helps eliminate all the Hearing-centric stereotypes that come from pity of the Deaf or fear that one might become Deaf. It is not a "disability" in the sense of something "missing," it is merely a different way of experiencing the world. The Deaf are better understood as members of a linguistic minority and their struggle to have their languages accepted within their respective majority languages share similarities with the struggles of other linguistic minorities such as Native American languages in the early United States.(3)

Like any other culture, the language of the Deaf, Sign Language, is a major aspect of Deaf culture. Sign Language is as capable of conveying concrete and abstract thoughts and emotions as any other language and it contains its own syntax and grammar. Deaf culture is as active and vibrant as any other culture, exhibiting many arts, commercial businesses, and politics. What was nice about this festival is to have Deaf culture understood, a given, by those in attendance. It may have been difficult for the fully Hearing-centric person to fathom the discussions in the lectures and on the screen regarding Deaf culture. But for those of us Hearing people who have had some exposure to Deaf Culture, it was a pleasant oasis from the ignorance of the Hearing-biased Media.

Deaf Cinema: A Scholarly Report

Both lectures that were part of the festival provided a helpful structure in which to view the films. Professor Jane Norman, PhD, surveyed the major moments in Deaf Cinema and how they relate to significant moments in the history of Deaf Culture. Film came to all of us in 1895 and this provided a wonderful opportunity for the Deaf. Being that the Deaf communicate through a visual language without a writing system, similar to many spoken languages such as Hmong, film provided an opportunity to document their language and culture so that it may be preserved and passed on. Simultaneous with the appearance of this tool for Deaf people, the Deaf were being oppressed by the same dominant culture forces lashing out at immigrants and other "undesirables." Deaf schools in the United States and France were eradicating Sign Language and firing Deaf teachers, all in response to an edict put down by the Hearing-dominated "representatives" at the Milan Second World Congress to Improve the Welfare of the Deaf and the Blind in 1880. In response to this Hearing-prejudiced edict, the Deaf-centric National Association of the Deaf (NAD) was created to battle Deaf oppression. As Gay Rights has its Stonewall and Asian-American Civil Rights its International Hotel, Deaf Rights has its Milan.

One of the major projects implemented by NAD, between 1910-1920, was, as Norman calls it, a "Heroic Film Project" of 13 silent 35mm films. The goal was survival. It allowed for self-preservation of Deaf Culture and a means to promote sign language skills since the Milan edict resulted in a decline in master signers.

Norman states she is reluctant to define Deaf Cinema for everyone since it is not static but an ongoing discourse. She asks, "Are there ways to carry over Sign Language linguistic principles cinematically through camera shots, editing, eye gaze, or sign language storytelling 'style'?" A few of the Shorts appeared to answer this question. Finnish director Antti Raike's, Dancer from a Silence of 100 dB (1995) paralleled a Deaf dancer's Finnish Sign Language with the movements of his dances. Austrian director Kathryn Resetarits's film Egypt (1996) utilized camera angles that allowed for enhancement of the expressive stories signed by the Austrian Deaf.

Besides Deaf History, Norman looked to the lessons learned from other minorities. She uses Spike Lee as a role model. Lee, along with advocating for more African-American representations on screen, has always advocated for more representations off screen as well. When minorities are excluded from positions behind the scenes, from director on down, reliance is still placed on the dominant culture for ones expression.

Norman doesn't only find parallels in African-American history for her work, the Native American community's reaction to Dances With Wolves (1990) provide useful analogies as well. Particularly, the Lakota Indian community had had concerns with non-Indians profiting from a story about their community. Indians were a part of the production and received a paycheck, but what were the other benefits to the community?

Learning from Deaf History and the history of other minorities, Norman's developing theory of Deaf Cinema requires a developing Deaf Cinema itself. To truly develop, more Deaf characters must be played by Deaf actors rather than by Hearing actors. But Norman goes further then that by requiring Deaf-centric consultants as well. Deaf performers cannot be expected to play the role of thespian and advocate. They have a job to do and that is to act. Having Deaf-centric consultants to check the script and intervene with the producers and directors, allows the Deaf performers to concentrate on performing. And in the spirit of Spike Lee and the Lakota Indians, the Deaf must be placed in other positions surrounding the making of the film to provide economic benefits to the community and opportunities for the Deaf to learn the business so they can create their own films later.

With these conditions met, you are more likely to have Deaf-centric film rather than Hearing-Centric film. Where Hearing-centric films will use the Deaf as plot propellers for comic relief, such as Kill or Cure (1923) a silent film starring Stan Laurel where a mysterious man who understands a gibberishy sign language is utilized for comic effect, Deaf-centric films will portray Deaf characters more three-dimensionally, such as Aimee, the main character in I Love You, But . . ., where her Deafness is never used for comic effect at her expense. Where Hearing-centric films will use "gimmicks"(4) such as having a shot of a dog barking without the sound and then immediately repeating that shot but this time with audio, Silent Film will include a whole soundtrack of the sounds inside a cochlear-implanted woman's head as she flashes back and forth between her son's hearing check-up and the day she met her husband at a Deaf social club.

Ironically, what is called for by Norman appeared close to emerging in the days of Silent Film, as John Schuchman, a Hearing Child of Deaf Adults, elaborated in his lectures about the history of Deaf actors in film and the history of the portrayals of the Deaf. Although NAD attempted to preserve Deaf culture on film, a major opportunity for Deaf culture was missed when James Spearing, the director of the all Deaf production The Busy Hour (1926), tried to get elite members of the Deaf community to fund a production company of films of, by, and for Deaf people. The summary response he received was 'We already have Silent Films so why would we need to make our own.' A few years later, Talkies would bring the demise of Silent Films and the opportunity was lost.

Silent Films had allowed Deaf actors opportunities to play both Hearing and Deaf characters. One of the most famous of the Deaf actors from Silent Films was Granville Redmond, a colleague of Charlie Chaplin. The clip Schuchman showed of Redmond was You'd Be Surprised (1926), a Victor/Victoria-esque Deaf role where Redmond, a Deaf man, played a Hearing man pretending to be a Deaf man in order to provide the plot twist. Although Redmond used legitimate sign in the film, Deafness was again used as a plot device rather than anything representative of Deaf Culture.

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) was one of the first films to incorporate a Deaf character. Bell is not well-liked in Deaf culture. Besides being a eugenicist who called for the prohibition of marriages between Deaf people, he oppressed sign and argued illegitimately that all Deaf could learn to speak like Hearing people.(5) This film argued that if the Deaf tried hard enough, they'd be able to talk perfectly like the beautiful character in the film, and, thus, be beautiful and successful like her. This characterization that if the Deaf struggled, they could speak perfectly became a Hearing-centrism of Deaf in film, alongside the portrayal of all Deaf as master-lip-readers.(6)

Schuchman noted that Johnny Belinda (1948) for which Jane Wyman won an Oscar for her portrayal of a Deaf woman, most famously known for her character's signing of the Lord's Prayer, holds an interesting place in Deaf Cinema. Although the pity-all-Deaf-people storyline makes people cringe these days, the Deaf press lauded the film as a step forward and positive portrayal of the Deaf in film. Particularly of note was the accurate sign language. Interestingly, the ads for the film, rather than describe Wyman's character as Deaf, talked of her as being an "innocent victim." The producers were worried talking about Deafness in the advertisements would depress the primarily Hearing audience. Schuchman noted that Children of a Lesser God (1986) followed a similar advertising campaign.(7)

Schuchman finished his talk by stepping away from Deaf actors and Deaf characters and addressing Deaf audiences. He derided the Motion Picture Association of America for its history of adamantly fighting laws requiring captioning of all major films. I'm sure cost and aesthetic reasons play into the MPAA's reasoning, but with the multiple viewings in our multiplexes, at least one showing could always be reserved for captioning for the Deaf. Norman, in her lecture, also addressed the need for more captioning for films by dropping a plug for the San Francisco International Film Festival specifically because the majority of those films are captioned since the majority are non-English films.

Deaf Cinema: The Movers and Shakers

Thus, the absence of captions is a frustration for the Deaf community when trying to watch films in the multiplexes. And in an effort to make this a Deaf-centric festival, the organizers held one screening that provided an opportunity for Hearing people who did not Sign to experience this frustration. Peter Wolf's film, I Love You, But . . . was screened without captioning of the American Sign Language (ASL), while the spoken dialogue was captioned. Hearing people were provided synopses of the signing scenes, but non-signing Hearing people had to rely on other aspects of the storytelling to decipher the nuances that the synopses did not cover.

I Love You, But . . . is Peter Wolf's third film, following Deafula (1974) and Think Me Nothing (1975). The film involves a Hearing man, Robert, played by Raymond Storti, who falls in love with a Deaf woman, Aimee, played by Rhondee Beriault, whose Deaf boyfriend is away doing research in another country. Robert learns sign language to communicate with Aimee and, although awkward, Aimee finds this endearing. Robert learns about Deaf culture through his relationship with Aimee and both Robert and Aimee deal with the prejudices of their respective Hearing and Deaf families.

The beginning of their relationship is forced as is the case in so many romance films. Robert's love for Aimee is too immediate, but we begin to believe the relationship based on the time they spend together. Interestingly, a scene at the beginning of the courtship subverts an unfortunate staple of the romance genre, the romanticism of stalker behavior. Aimee's badminton coach gives Robert Aimee's phone number and address in return for money. Initially, the audience is disturbed by this violation. However, the number given is that to a Relay operator, a telephone service which enables Deaf and Hearing to communicate over the phone and the address is the coach's house. The coach tricks Robert to make sure his interest in Aimee is sincere. With too many romance films rewarding stalker-like behavior, this was a wonderful subversion of that genre trope.

The spoken dialogue of I Love You, But . . . lacks naturalness, coming off as forced as the acting, especially Storti's. Still, the film's strength is not in it's acting and spoken dialogue. The film's strength is in its representation of a culture that rarely receives proper representation. Although I did not find My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) all that much to raise a big fat fuss about - it also has a relationship that begins through contrived and forced circumstances - I am well aware of the lack of representations of Greek-American culture. I have yet to meet a Greek-American friend of mine who did not thoroughly enjoy the film. The main reason they provide for loving this film is they can relate to so much that is shown in the film, all the way down to the father's creative uses of Windex. Similarly, I Love You, But . . . presents a positive portrayal of Deaf culture, yet with less humor. Aimee and her Deaf boyfriend are successful. Aimee videotaping letters to her boyfriend and the flashing lights in Deaf homes that signify someone is at the front door each are representative of Deaf lives. Controversial topics are addressed as well, such as cochlear implants, the Messiah complex of Hearing people wanting to "save" Deaf people, and derivative forms of Sign Language that Hearing people espouse so that they can more easily communicate with Deaf people at the expense of the richness and fullness of ASL.

Producer Lawrence Fleischer, who also wrote the story from which the film was adapted, was present at the screening. He said that his intent was to show a strong, confident Deaf woman, which was accomplished. He also said the cast had hopes to market this to wider Hollywood through the higher production value of the film. Throughout the film, Robert and Aimee are seen engaging in activities such as riding horses and jet skis. Robert is quite the beefcake as well, shown in an unintentionally laughable scene playing tennis in tight spandex. A Hearing woman sitting next to me who knows ASL openly critiqued these scenes saying to me, "They sure are active?" Wolf and Fleischer had hoped this action would make the film more sellable. Sadly, the film's forced spoken dialogue and action fall flat in this attempt. Where the film shines is the portrayal of aspects of Deaf culture and Deaf issues that the Hearing community has excluded from the screen.

Danny and Oxide Pang's film Bangkok Dangerous succeeds where Wolf's fails, yet fails where Wolf's succeeds. It is an entertaining action film that has little to do with Deaf culture outside of showing how the Deaf are often isolated when they are born to Hearing cultures that do not allow them, or do not have the resources to allow them, the opportunity to learn their natural language of Sign nor socialize with fellow Deaf people.

The main character of this film, Kong, is Deaf. As we learn through the flashbacks, Kong was working at a shooting range in Thailand when he met Joe and his girlfriend Aom. Kong joins Joe enacting hits throughout Thailand. The film is basically a meditation on revenge. Very stylized, the Pangs play around with quick edits, slow-motion, and colors. The result is a visually enjoyable film throughout with very little dialogue.

Kong's Deafness is not portrayed in a Deaf-centric way perhaps because he is isolated from any Deaf community in Thailand. It would have been helpful if the festival organizers had provided some context about the Thai Deaf community since the film itself does not address this. Regardless of such context, this film could not be described as representative of that community since we are only shown one Deaf person whereas the other films shown represented Deaf characters from different walks of life.(8)

The Pangs generally engage in the gimmick of Hearing portrayals of Deafness where they occasionally put us in what they believe is Kong's head by dampening the audio every so often. One interesting scene, however, involves Kong's profession being exposed to Fon, the Hearing woman he's dating. Mugged by some random thugs, Kong quickly disposes of them with his gun. After the gun is fired, the audio becomes a sustained ringing. It's an interesting technique and it works in enhancing the fear of Kong at his profession being found out and the fright of Fon in the horror and confusion surrounding her.

Fon's attempts to communicate with Kong through written Thai provide interesting moments as well. Fon decides to write on Kong's arm. With the beginnings of their courtship written on his body, Kong is provided physical memories when they are apart. Kong gazing at his arm while alone in bed adds a nice touch to the story. Still in terms of Thai Deaf Culture, we aren't shown much. The visual spectacle provides most of the engagement in the story.

It is the film I Love You, a film whose title does not present the hesitation of Wolf's, that succeeds in entertaining us within a Deaf-centric frame. Yutaka Osawa and Akihiro Yonaiyama, Hearing and Deaf respectively, worked with equal input to present a treasure of a story about a Deaf woman, Asako Mizukoshi, played by Akiko Oshidari, married to a Hearing man, Ryuichi, played by Minoru Tanaka, with a Hearing daughter, Ai, played by Ai Okasaki. The plot centers around the family's response to Ai being picked on at school for having a Deaf mother. In an effort to help her daughter, Ai joins a Deaf acting troupe, including her daughter as they prepare to perform "Beauty and The Beast" for a cultural series in their prefecture. Through this endeavor, both Akiko and Ai find fuller, more honest lives. Unlike Bangkok Dangerous, multiple aspects of Deaf culture are addressed, such as a Deaf person's frustrations with isolation from her community by her Hearing parents, Hearing prejudices against the Deaf marrying, and Deaf prejudices towards the Hearing community. And unlike I Love You, But . . ., such is done in a completely engaging, entertaining story of heart, perseverance, and triumph.

Osawa and Yonaiyama, writer Yukiko Okazaki, and the cast have told a touching tale full of joy and pain that carries the audience with each gesture. The tensions between the Hearing and Deaf worlds are played out with few cliches and few moments of forced dialogue or plot propulsion. When Asako and Ryuichi have a fight about Asako's time away from home due to play practice, Asako silences Ryuichi through her insistence on turning off the light in their bedroom so he can't sign to her. Ryuichi insists on keeping the light on and Asako finally turns away from him, crouches to the floor, and screams in her authentic Deaf voice that he just can't understand what she's struggling with as a Deaf mother in a Hearing-dominated world. The eloquence of her emotion overrides the lack of elocution from her voice. Also, when Ai discovers a family secret, Asako helps Ai process the information in a wonderfully, tearful scene. I Love You is melodrama at its best, yet better. Besides the universals of a family's struggle, we also see the particulars of a community too often left silent in our Talkies.

While the play within a play of Asako's Deaf acting troupe performing "Beauty and The Beast" allows for a parallel of stretching oneself to understand the experience of others, to see the beauty within that which you initially do not understand, there is another play within a play going on in I Love You. Actually, it's a lecture within a play, that is, Jane Norman's lecture. The collaboration of Deaf and Hearing professionals on the film, along with collaboration of Deaf and Hearing in the acting troupe within the film, both follow the model Norman presented in her lecture. In I Love You, we witness Deaf and Hearing collaborating equally to present the Deaf realistically, thus, respectfully, and it follows that we also witness the result of the Deaf community benefiting through active participation in the film as a whole.

Although the Deaf Press lauded Johnny Belinda during its time, the film no longer stands up as a powerful work today. Perhaps I Love You will be the first Deaf film of quality to carry its impact to later generations. If the response at this festival or from the audience at Gallaudet University when it was shown there is any indication, there is no "But" associated with this "I Love You." Hopefully, the Signs at future Deaf, and non-Deaf, Film Festivals will soon associate "And" with future "I Love You's" where the Deaf have representation of, by, and for the Deaf through film. It looks as if all was not lost when Talkies took over.


(1) Harlan Lane. When the Mind Hears: The History of the Deaf. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. It is important to note here that it would be in error to equate Sign Languages with pantomime. As Lane writes in the narrative voice of Laurent Clerc, ". . . , Whatever basis a particular sign may have had in pantomime, it has undergone a species of abbreviation and regularization, so the movement is fluid and rapid, the handshapes are familiar, the locations are convenient" (281-282). However, some who know Sign Language can have greater familiarity with pantomime to allow for limited communication with non-signing individuals with serious effort, as Lane notes with examples in the above mentioned book.

(2) Which, as can be correctly assumed, is named after the aforementioned Thomas Gallaudet.

(3) Right here, I may have lost some Hearing readers. Most Hearing people have little, if any, contact with the Deaf, and are thus awash in assumptions about the Deaf. To convince a neophyte of the values and reality of Deaf Culture would cause me to digress significantly from the purpose of this article, Deaf Cinema. For those who are curious and wish to read more about Deaf Culture, I will recommend two books by psychology and linguistics specialist, Harlan Lane, PhD: When the Mind Hears: The History of the Deaf (1989) and The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community (2000).

(4) I had come to the festival to learn about Deaf Cinema, but also to see if PARK Chan-wook's film Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) could survive a Deaf-centric critique. Although Park did not repeat a scene verbatim with and without audio, he does take us into the head of the Deaf character, Ryu, played by SHIN Ha-kyun, by removing the audio and then he takes us out of Ryu's head by returning the audio.

I asked John Schuchman if Shin and BAE Doo-na's signing through the reflection of a mirror would constitute a Hearing-centric "gimmick." The film was not shown at this festival and Schuchman had not seen it. Having not seen the film and being a Hearing Person, Schuchman didn't feel comfortable answering my question. However, confirmation was received from the Deaf in the crowd that they do sometimes sign in the mirrors of bathrooms. This may or may not be a "gimmick." Whether Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance presents a Deaf-centric view rather than a Hearing-centric fantasy of Deafness requires further study.

I also asked Schuchman if the pattern in portrayals of Deaf and Hearing couples, was Deaf woman with Hearing man, similar to how Interracial film couples are more often White Man/Non-White Woman couplings. Again Schuchman didn't feel comfortable confirming or disconfirming this since his lecture was based on research he did that ended in 1988. I will note, however, of the films we were shown, five Deaf/Hearing couples were presented and all but one were Deaf woman/Hearing man pairings. Bangkok Dangerous the only exception. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance also has a Hearing Woman/Deaf Man pairing.

Schuchman did share that, a while back, when he was first asked which were portrayed more in film, Deaf Women or Deaf Men, he quickly answered that it was Deaf Women. That night he questioned himself, and like any good historian, he went and researched his assumption and found that the portrayal was actually closer to 50/50 women and men. Since 1988, Schuchman's research has been focused on Deaf People and the Holocaust so he didn't feel comfortable commenting on present Deaf portrayals.

(5) Lane (1989).

(6) Yes, presenters throughout the festival acknowledged that there are master lip-readers. However, they are the exception within the Deaf population, not the rule.

(7) Interestingly, although it's probably one of the few films about Deaf people most Hearing people can recall and it features the only Deaf actress most Hearing people know, Marlee Matlin, Children of a Lesser God was barely mentioned at this Deaf Film Festival. And when it was mentioned, it was mentioned disparagingly.

(8) The festival organizers could have referred to Owen Wrigley's The Politics of Deafness (1996) for such context, in which the deaf community in Thailand is discussed. Unfortunately, I found out about this book too late to read it before this article's deadline..

                                                                 © FILM JOURNAL 2002