Sunday, April 24, 2005

In the Land of the Deaf (Nicolas Philibert)

Last week I was watching the news, and one of those dreaded human interest stories came on, this one farted out by the sports reporter. You know you're in trouble when the sports guy's flat top haircut attempts to warm your heart, puppy-doggedly licking your face journalistically with that sickly sweet mixture of sentimentality, condescension, lazy reporting, bad breath, and dribbly saliva more commonly exhibited by the, well, human interest reporter. This particular story was about a teenager who had some kind of rare syndrome named after a dead German aristocrat-physician that prevented parts of him from growing much, i.e. a midget. Turns out this midget-boy is on the high school's golf team, powerlifting team, student council, and concert band. The reporter weighed all the facts and concluded the boy's just like a regular teen, after all, despite the lack of proper shins. Imagine it for a second, will you? A midget who can play golf. What next, a man with a rash on his hand able to drink a glass of mango tea? It figures that a local news affiliate seeks to homogenize a kid who really is different from his peers, and in that condescending homogenization, further ostracize him as some kind of sideshow freak, but those who've attempted to present the lives of handicapped and disabled individuals in other media usually haven't fared much better. There's always this sense of bringing the disabled into our world, instead of pulling us into theirs. This French documentary about the lives of deaf people expertly succeeds at the latter. Almost all speech (with the exception of a few classroom scenes of deaf children learning how to speak aloud) is presented in subtitled sign-language with no voice-overs or narration. The audience is given very little information about anyone in the film and is instead thrown right into the film's subjects' lives. We're forced to provide our own contexts through the accumulation of scenes, until we can piece together enough information to figure out what is happening. It's an effective technique that emulates the actual flow of daily life. Instead of feeling sorry for the deaf, we find out that most of them feel sorry for us. Many subjects talk about their heightened visual sense and how they see hearing people sleepwalk through life, failing to really look at the world around us. They also discuss the language barrier between hearing people from different countries. A deaf sign-language teacher points out that while each country has its own different sign language, it's mostly a matter of variations on a theme, and that, given a couple of days' adjustment, any deaf person can communicate easily with another one. It would still suck not being able to listen to Cheap Trick, though.

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