Filmmakers: Take One!

Deaf Culture Centre “Deaf Filmmakers: Take One” Opening Night
Dr. Jane Norman


Thank you. Thank you very much! I am both tremendously happy and honoured to be here tonight. I did not come here alone. Accompanying me here this evening is my colleague, Dr. Brian Greenwald, who is a professor in the Government and History Department at Gallaudet University. We are working closely together on establishing a Museum at Gallaudet, so to come here and see everything is a valuable role model for us.

This is my second time coming here. I was here during the opening in 2006 and it was such a special moment. I remember being here and feeling awe-inspired as I took it all in. (to interpreter) I was here in 2006 for the Opening night, the Gala. It was so special. So when I heard you were going to have a film exhibit featuring Deaf filmmakers I was just beside myself! I love museums, but even more than museums I absolutely love Deaf Filmmakers. To see the two combined I felt that I’d died and gone to heaven! I mean my two passions combined – that was it for me – I knew I had to come. Even if I had arrived only to find the Centre closed I would have hunkered down and scooted in as soon as it opened!

I am just so happy to be here. I need to try to keep this short because I do have a time limit to keep to. Really when I discuss museums and Flimmakers I could go on and on, so I must stick to the limit.

Now, who will operate the PowerPoint for me? Perfect.
This is her family. I wish it were my family.

Okay, the topic is Through Deaf Eyes and the focus of this discussion is on Deaf Cinema. Do you know your exhibit now is on Deaf Filmmakers but the films they make all fall under the genre Deaf Cinema? Now, more and more Deaf Filmmakers are acknowledging and using the term Deaf Cinema. I did not take it upon myself to come up with this name and label films this way. I watched Deaf Filmmakers to see what term they used to define their work and I used that term in this presentation based on what they as a collective created.

In this exhibit it is very important for you to see the picture of George Veditz who started to make and distribute films in 1895 and you can see those films. During 1910, Deaf people in America, in the National Association of the Deaf started a project of making films. They were worried about sign language deteriorating and the language being lost. There were many reasons for this worry so they took it upon themselves to make numerous films as a means to capture sign language so that it could then be passed down through generations. Additionally, it was felt that the sign language they captured on film could be passed on to show the proper way to sign as that was the mind set of that time.

Those films are also extremely important as a reflection of our identity. They help us define who we are and ultimately make us feel connected and that is so important. If these films did not exist how would we show the Deaf way of life; how would we show what sign language looked like? You cannot make a sound recording of sign language; a photograph only shows us frozen stills, we have to capture the movement. The only way to fully capture the breadth of our language is by capturing it on film –  case closed. We feel an automatic bond with film as it captures how we express ourselves through movement in our language. We feel this connection with film intuitively. That connection is so important because it shows who we are and our way of life – it does not matter if I am from Italy, or if I am from Japan – it does not matter where are from, you still see it and feel intrinsically connected. You feel that you are the same, you share the same Deaf experience, you know what I mean? You feel that innate connection and it is so important.

In 1910, Veditz made the films as a means to preserve sign language but more than that, it was a means to capture our way of life; who we are and our identity. Thus, Veditz captured sign language on film, and it was long but in the clips you see him dressed elegantly and signing beautifully. He preserved our language so that we could internalize it and our language would carry on for years to come.

He gave us these films and in doing so, charged us to take on this responsibility. So I feel that tonight with this exhibit it is our responsibility to carry on Veditz’s charge and pass it on. We have to meet his charge; we have to meet his challenge. Tonight, this exhibit is doing just that and that is why I knew without a doubt that I absolutely had to come here tonight.

You can view Veditz’s film online. Gallaudet University received a grant from Mellon Foundation and created a Video Library, which carries many old films. Veditz’s old film is one of the movies in the library. You can go on the Gallaudet website, sign up, and then you can access many movies that you can watch and just enjoy many of the old films. Additionally, you can watch different movies made by students. They are very interesting.

Recently I mentioned how you can watch a film made by a Deaf person from Japan or a film made by a Deaf person in Italy and regardless you will still feel that intrinsic connection. Being from two different countries and separated by borders cannot stop that feeling. This connection transcends borders because we all have a shared experience. It does not matter – if I were to go to Japan and dig to the bottom of the language to expose its roots and then do the same thing with ASL I would see that the roots of these languages are not the same but regardless, if we were to look at the Japanese way of signing, their films and so on, that connection still happens.  The same is true if they were to watch our films, for example when I went to Japan as a Keynote Speaker at the Japanese Deaf Film Festival, I brought clips of numerous films made by Deaf people in all parts of the world, who I had asked to send me clips of their work. I developed a flyer to go along with each clip so that as the clip was playing people could look at the flyer to see who the filmmaker was and instantly they felt more connected to them regardless of which country they were from. That is what is meant by Transnational, the idea that it is a global world. There are no boundaries. We are all connected.

I feel this exhibit is a reflection of just that; we do not feel separate from one another. It is true that we use different language – some may use different signs than others; we have differences and yet we still feel that intrinsic connection. And we still use Film Language – it doesn’t matter who you are, it doesn’t matter if you are Deaf or hearing you still watch films and see how they are made.

I have attended more than 10 Deaf film festivals all over the world. I recently arrived back from England and that was the second time I’ve been there. England hosts a Deaf Film Festival in Wolverhampton. I’ve been to festivals in Japan and France and many other countries and I’ve noticed one common frustration, one common challenge that surfaces is that the films are made and then what?; they shoot the films but then what do they do with the final product? They want to sell them, right. They need to sell them, but how? And that is the challenge faced by filmmakers. When film festivals are held, distributors are not invited. So when you make films you have to have a distributor to work with in order to market the films. We need to find a way to distribute the product and find a way for Deaf filmmakers to get work.

Some Deaf filmmakers have decided that they want their work to be cross-cultural, they want to market their work cross-culturally, meaning that they want to make their work accessible to hearing people, that is what is meant by cross-cultural. Some filmmakers want that, while others make their films and then leave them lying on a shelf and they just sit there! We need to find a way – and I feel that that is the challenge faced by Deaf filmmakers around the world and that they need to meet that challenge by figuring out how to raise the bar and we need to look at how we can support them in this challenge. Perhaps we can support them by searching for and researching ways to try to get distributors and that is extremely difficult. However I think we should look, research and find ways that we can support them.  With film festivals, if you were to host a film festival it should be your responsibility to bring in distributors. So when Gallaudet hosts the big World Deaf Film Festival from November 4th to the 7th of 2009, next year, we have the responsibility to bring in distributors and that will be our biggest challenge – a challenge that hopefully we will meet.

I feel that – I came here for the Toronto Deaf Film Festival and I was so happy to be here during that time, it was a wonderful experience for me. It was a very positive experience.

Film festivals are obviously important because of the interaction. It provides filmmakers the opportunity to look at each other’s work and think “Oh that’s this person’s style of work” and “that’s their style” and so on. “That’s how you use that technology!”. One thing builds on another. It starts a dialogue that grows between filmmakers. It is like lighting a fire under a pot of water that boils and rises to the surface and maybe a joint project will come out of it.

I’ve noticed now with Deaf filmmakers, in terms of their filmmaking budget – before budgets were under $1, 000.00. Now I am noticing, for example when I went to England, I saw two films each with a budget of over $10,000.00 already! Also, Mark Wood’s ASL films, the budget was way over that! So we now have a new category for Deaf filmmakers that have budgets that are way over! Step by step we are moving ahead and now with technology it is getting easier and easier (Jane this next section from 12:41-12:46 is unclear to me. Can you please draft your intent for this section) The expenses are rising, but the possibilities are endless. Now there’s what is called the Third Screen. So you have a big screen first and then second a smaller TV, and now you have an even smaller one called the Third Screen to look at. For example the screen on a pager or a cell phone, these are known as a third screen which offers numerous opportunities for more –

Screen, my apologies I should have signed screen. Thank you for help.

So that holds a lot of potential for the future.

Moving on, when we say the term Deaf Filmmakers what does that really mean? A filmmaker really makes good quality films based on what we call Film Language. Film language includes terms like “close up”, medium shot or long-shot, these are all apart of film language. Also editing and how you edit is based on different editing formulas. In relation to Deaf Filmmakers, they started to discuss whether or not they may have a special way, that they tend to make films – not all – but some – may have a way they shoot and a way that they edit based on – really some have training and some do not have any training but they have an innate sensibility that influences how they set up their framing and make their editing choices. For example, some filmmakers, like Susan Mather, she doesn’t specifically relate this to films, but she discusses an interesting principle called eye-gaze for instance if two deaf people are conversing and I was watching them, how would I know when to shift my gaze to the other person when they reply? How would I know? I don’t have to ask, I know by the eyes and so on when the other person begins signing. Some filmmakers say that editing should follow sign language principles and that the rules of sign language should be applied while editing. This is still a new concept that was brought to light by Peter Wolf, in California. He is a Deaf filmmaker and declared that editing should be based on sign – if you shift your eye gaze when you are watching someone sign then that should be applied during editing.

Interestingly, Daniele Le Rose, an Italian Deaf filmmaker who graduated from Gallaudet claims that editing and framing should be based on the H-M-H meaning Hold-Movement-Hold principle. My point is that Deaf filmmakers are searching and researching different ways and are starting to identify things that make them say “Hey, hold on a minute – maybe Deaf Cinema can make a contribution to film language  – to general film language. That is tremendous and we need to do something to encourage and support them and allow them to keep searching and experimenting these different ways.

Next slide please.

On that last slide you saw D-Pan, you need to see it on the Internet! D-Pan. It’s interesting, they are starting to experiment with the combination of sign language and graphics. You’ve seen it? Some of you have seen it – they’ll be signing and then oppressive words appear graphically all over the screen and the English words are pressing down on the person until the person angrily swipes at them and they fall away, like glass shattering all over the screen!
So it’s combining sign and graphics together and it’s just so astounding, again opening up new possibilities. It mixes two different languages and Film Language all together. It really is interesting!

Now, what kind of impact does all of this have on us – on the Deaf community? What kind of impact does this have on Deaf education? That is truly my motivation because really when you scratch the surface I am a teacher – I am an educator and I feel that films, video, etc are extremely important and that there should be more films used in the education of Deaf people. So I hope that with support, Deaf filmmakers can – for their bread and butter – want to make films for schools and for educational purposes – and use the money they make from that to create the films that they aspire to. I truly think that children can benefit from that support as well as filmmakers.

Now I must tell you that I am in love with your website.When Drew should me your website I was absolutely enthralled! I love it! It is beautiful and very creative  – it’s inspiring and the movement and everything flows – it is easy to navigate – it’s just beautiful congratulations to all of you – I know that represents months and months and months of hard work – I know that.

Next slide please.

Like I mentioned before, nothing else in the world can really capture sign language and once it’s captured we have to find ways of preserving it. For example, film transcends time – in that if I make a film, once I die that film can be passed on to someone else and when they die they will pass it on and so on and so forth. That film lives on, but if it is not preserved it will be lost. So we have to preserve our films and that is why this exhibit is very important, it really emphasizes the need for preservation. I know that preservation is very expensive, but I think that somehow, someway we need to face that and deal with it. I already explained about the Gallaudet University Video Library, so whenever you have time you can look into that. It’s more visual and you may find it more enjoyable.

In closing, my point is basically, that this exhibit obviously shows support for Deaf filmmakers and that this Centre is a wonderful role-model. You have demonstrated your courage – you have met and accepted Veditz’s charge and passed that charge on to Canada. Congratulations to all of you. I look forward to more to come and I thank you again for this wonderful opportunity, thank you so much!

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