Disclaimer: here I talk about my experience with a deaf community. I am not deaf. Where I describe deaf experiences, I’m reliant on what people have told me, and what I have observed. I take full responsibility for any assumptions, misunderstandings or mistakes.
As a hearing person, facilitating a script development workshop with a room full of deaf teenagers isn’t without its challenges. Sure, there’s a translator, and Kelly Hodgson’s ability to channel information along with subtle character nuances as was nothing short of miraculous. She was literally a multi-media nexus for twenty people for two hours. It’s hard. The students can’t hear me, and I can’t read them. There are silences while people sign-talk their way through complex details, and often, misunderstandings. And the silences are punctuated by palms slapped down on tables, as people draw your attention to what they have to say.
Last year, my videographer friend Hank Snell had just embarked on a new project with Kelston Deaf Education Centre (KDEC), and invited me in to help with the storytelling. I’d worked with the deaf community before, and found it exhilarating, so I didn’t hesitate. A week later, we found ourselves in a room with a dozen or so students, some teachers and support staff and the miraculous Kelly, the interpreter.
I love focus groups. There is nothing quite like a detailed, thorough, discursive examination of a meaningful topic. Invariably, you get to some crucial nugget that seems obvious, but which everyone knows we’d never have discovered, had we not had the discussion in the first place.
So the students were clear. The film had to have the following characteristics:
- It should be about the village, which is what they call the student hostel at KDEC
- Life at the village can look strange, to outsiders, and the film should reflect that
- Most importantly, they said, someone should learn to sign
We asked, “what sort of strange?” Mostly, the strangeness revolves around a myriad of potential misunderstandings. Hearing aids’ batteries go flat at crucial moments. People *accidentally* trip the fire alarm (I still can’t quite imagine what chaos is like in a deaf environment). People turn the stereo on, loudly, and walk away leaving it blaring, just as Important Hearing People come to visit.
And this: hearing people hate silence. Any interviewer knows that silence can be their most powerful weapon. Want someone to speak? Ask them a tricky question, and STFU. Silence draws language out of hearing people like a vacuum sucks matter. It’s not that deaf environments are silent. It’s just that sound is irrelevant. So you learn fast not to worry that someone’s pounding their fist on a table top: they’re just saying “Hey”.
So I took away a bunch of anecdotes, and our three key principles, and wrote up a draft. Hank stymied the fire alarm idea out of hand. Fair enough: no budget for elaborate set ups. Besides, tempting though it was, in a short film it sacrificed too much of the human story.
In the end, we gave most consideration to the widely shared experience of learning to sign, and we were surprised at the conflicts we found there. It’s not that learning a language is hard: of course it is. It’s that for many teenagers, the first encounter with sign language is not always good. There’s no guarantee that NZ Sign (or any other sign language) will reach any given household. And the families of hearing-impaired kids learn to cope with the condition, as much as the kids do themselves. Arriving in a deaf community for the first time, as a teenager, many find themselves resenting others who can’t understand spoken language. And it goes the other way, too. Signers can get frustrated with new arrivals who can’t sign.
As one student unpacked this experience for us, over half the room acknowledged that they’d had similar or identical experiences. This, it was clear, was the story they wanted told.
Running the creative workshop through an interpreter was difficult, and getting on set presented entirely new challenges. Eventually Hank, myself and our producer, Melissa Laing of Arts Whau, figured out a comfortable process. Melissa and I either worked with the actors as Hank shot the scenes, while the other one of us prepared other actors for subsequent scenes.
In fact, Hank shot hardly anything. Having worked with a wide range of groups with special needs for over twenty years, he’s developed a facilitative approach, taking his hands off the gear as much as possible, and keeping the students busy. So it was KDEC students who operated the camera, set our mini lights and swung the mic boom. You can hear him talk about all that to Lynn Freeman on Radio New Zealand.
Amy Blinkhorne and Nicki Morrison, both deaf staff at KDEC, co-produced. Amy supported the creative process from conception and throughout the shoot, and supported Hank with a heap of editing. Nicki basically just made everything happen.
I hope people like the film. It’s not all comfortable viewing, and to say that budget was a constraint would be both an understatement, and unfair on Arts Whau, who do an amazing job channeling the vibrancy of a challenged and diverse community.
It sort of goes with the territory of community art, that the challenges in the community can feed straight into the project. So the strangeness of silence is there for you all, if not to enjoy, then to experience and reflect on. The film also shows some of the unique – maybe even eccentric – individual responses to a challenging world, and we didn’t always have the time to be subtle about it.
And, most importantly, someone learns to sign. It happens on screen. And – for those of you who watch to the end – it’ll happen for you too. Unless, of course, you’re already conversant in NZ Sign. In which case, all I can hope for is that you recognise the experience our hero Brandy goes through, either in yourself or in someone you know.