Author: Thompson, Elizabeth
Date published: April 1, 2010
What do a comedian, a singer, a drummer and an actor have in common? First, they are all featured in the new movie "See What I'm Saying." Second, these performers are all deaf.
"These are not deaf artists; they are artists that just happen to be deaf," says Hilari Scarl, the documentary's director and producer. The film takes viewers backstage, behind the bright lights, for an intimate look at what life is really like for four deaf performers.
Internationally known and loved C.J. Jones presents his comedy show to a hearing audience, but for three nights in a row, only a few people show up. Rock singer T.L. Forsberg polishes her sign language, uses computers to check her pitch and wonders if she is deaf enough to fit in with others in the deaf community. Bob Hiltermann's band, Beethoven's Nightmare, a deaf rock band, is a surprise and delight. And actor Robert DeMayo, who teaches once a year at the renowned Juilliard School in New York, becomes homeless but not hopeless.
Performing is not easy for anyone, but combining a gift for entertaining with hearing loss is a unique challenge which the documentary explores. Additionally, the film makes history as the first open-captioned film to run in mainstream theaters, fulfilling a long-sought-after dream to bridge a major gap between the hearing and deaf worlds.
Scarl was one of a small number of aspiring filmmakers chosen by Steven Spielberg in 2007 to appear on his reality TV show, "On the Lot." "I asked everyone who was going to vote for me to send me $20 to make this documentary," Scarl says. With the $8,000 she raised, filming began. Investors came on board during production and post-production, with further funding coming via a grant from the Arnold Glassman Fund and sponsorship from Microsoft Corporation.
Challenges appeared at nearly every turn, and as Scarl followed the drummer, singer, comedian and actor, she ended up filming more than 50 deaf entertainers in more than 12 cities in the U.S. and overseas. "Situations kept arising, keeping us scrambling and booking two and sometimes three different crews at one time," Scarl said. "But the perks of filming in sign language were unique as well. I could hold interviews in noisy places."
The interpreters also faced unique challenges during production. "Three different interpreters rotated in and out of the editing bay," Scarl says, "laying down temporary audio voice-over for my hearing editor as I transcribed more than 700 pages of 300 hours of footage." It took six months of 80-hour work weeks to complete production of four complete storylines and another three months to "weave the story together."
Production saw another nine months of test screenings, focus groups with audience discussions and full-time editing to polish the final product.
Scarl, who has neither deaf relatives nor hearing loss herself, had no compelling motives for learning American Sign Languge until she saw a performance at the New York Deaf Theatre of "'night, Mother."
"The performance came to life with a visceral impact that was visually and emotionally powerful, translated simultaneously by unseen voicing actors. I was hooked," she said. She took sign language classes and, since her roommate was deaf, put what she learned to good use. Then she took a leap and auditioned for the National Theatre of the Deaf and was cast as a voicing actor. During the play's yearlong tour, Scarl immersed herself in deaf culture and met DeMayo.
"I was a minority on tour with 17 deaf actors who lived in a world with a unique bond I couldn't share," Scarl says. After a year of building trust and witnessing the chasm between deaf and hearing people, Scarl moved to Los Angeles, eager for others to come to know these talented actors as well.
Scarl wants to create more opportunities for deaf performers based on their talent, not hearing loss, and wants directors to realize they can cast actors who are deaf in roles typically filled by hearing people. "I would like to spread the message that being deaf is not a handicap," asserts Scarl. "I hope you see what they are saying."
"See What I'm Saying" opened a 25-city tour at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood on March 18, 2010. More screenings are scheduled throughout the year. For tour updates, please visit www. seewhatimsayingmovie.com.
Elizabeth Thompson is a columnist for Suburban News Publications and lives in Grove City, Ohio. Her book, Day by Day, the Chronicles of a Hard of Hearing Reporter was published in June 2008 by Gallaudet University Press.