Please pardon the pause in writing.
September 19th through the 25th is Deaf Awareness Week. Unless you have a handicap or a disability, or someone close to you has one, you rarely consider the consequences of that life, that culture, or that lifestyle – how differently that life is led.
What does Deaf Awareness mean for movies? When’s the last time you heard of a “Deaf movie?” (Please, forgive the pun.) Children of A Lesser God came out in 1986, nearly 25-years ago. The story, which takes place in a school or the deaf and hearing impaired, was adapted by director Randa Haines, from a play by Mark Medoff.
One of the indelible exchanges from the film:
School’s principal to new teacher: “Yelling at the back of a deaf person. Very good James.”
Principal turns to bystander: “He’s been at all the best schools.”
Even if you or a friend saw or remembered that film, modern titles are scarce. You wrack your brain to think of another film that provides the hearing community a view through the looking glass onto the deaf and hard of hearing culture(s). After having sought more than a few experts on this subject, I found that they felt they had meager to say as it relates to the movie theaters.
Deaf characters on movie screens are usually sidekicks: think of Four Weddings and a Funeral, from Britain in 1994, where the character of Hugh Grant’s deaf brother, David, is splendid if minor. In Mr. Holland’s Opus, the following year, the character of the title character’s deaf son, Cole, affects Mr. Holland more vitally than the brother in Four Weddings does it.
Two modern television productions stand out: Breaking Through, from 1996, directed by Fred Gerber, with Kellie Martin and JoBeth Williams; and Wildflower, from 1991, directed by Diane Keaton from Sara Flanigan’s novel “Alice,” with Patricia Arquette as an epileptic who is hard of hearing in what resembles the 1940′s rural Georgia. Both of these latter two characters and their stories involved young women who need the hearing community’s help in fleeing ignorant, even provincial, and brutal family settings.
Away from fiction there was John Aronson’s documentary, Sound and Fury, from 2000, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It exposed a controversy that keeps the deaf and hearing cultures from listening to each other: the story of what changes the cochlear implant wreaks or would wreak on deaf children whose parents yearn for them to be “normal.” The DVD case asks you:
If you could make your deaf child hear, would you?
How many deaf or hearing-impaired people are there? That’s hard. According Gallaudet University’s latest count, from a non-governmental source in 1990-91, their community amounts to nearly nine percent. But then the U.S. population was not the 310-million we know now, but according to them a little over 236-million – our population grown by 20 percent. It’s fair to suppose that the deaf and hearing-impaired amount to nearly 10 percent of the U.S. Maybe you’re asking: how big does your minority community have to be to expect to see movies that specifically and explicitly tell your story? Another brief description of the community is below:
According to the Better Hearing Institute:
- 1 in 14 Generation Xers (ages 29-40), or 7.4%, already has hearing loss;
- It is estimated that 3 in 1,000 infants are born with serious to profound hearing loss.
Their stories are probably as fascinating as the hearing communities’. For centuries even millennia peoples and cultures have told stories from and about themselves to one another, so they could express themselves artistically, entertain one another, and be understood by others. It’s a fundamental pillar of artistic expression.
Gender archetypes frame and constrain this. The portrayals also conform, maybe cling, to gender archetypes: men = strong, vital; women = weak, needy. These also lack the prestige of a theatrical that has historically meant something to us as audiences. But that contention deserves some deliberate attention.
Do we venture beyond Children of A Lesser God, or revere and in-turn cling to it? There are groups for deaf artists who are making and want to make films: Deaf Women in Film and the Deaf Rochester Film Festival. That festival’s last web update is from 2009. I suppose that the tougher and tactical questions of access and audience are left for discussion. But of course the bigger badder ones of budget and box office nag us.