- Actress Shoshannah Stern, a Gallaudet grad. (publicity photo)
Professor Jane Norman has directed film festivals at Gallaudet University before, with Deaf Way I in 1989 and Deaf Way II in 2002. But the inaugural, four-day WorlDeaf Cinema Festival, which kicks off on Thursday, looks to be the most star-studded yet, including appearances by producer Samuel Goldwyn, Jr. and actresses Marlee Matlin and Shoshannah Stern. The lineup, meanwhile, consists of 17 films selected from seven countries, selected from 173 submissions by a judging panel. Some of the films were made by hearing filmmakers, some by deaf filmmakers, but all pertain to the deaf experience — and come with English subtitles.
I interviewed Stern, a Gallaudet graduate, and Norman by email.
On the challenges of being a deaf actress:
SS: I think every role I've played has presented its own unique challenge, whether it's written as a deaf role or not. Sometimes roles that have been written as deaf present me with a challenge because being deaf is a very individual thing, and it can be a bit difficult to figure out exactly what kind of deaf they're looking for. The roles of Bonnie in Jericho and Holly in Threat Matrix weren't written as deaf, in addition to the role of Sarah I have now on Lie to Me.... With each show, I was tremendously lucky to have people who saw something in me and were willing to take a risk. It can be a struggle to think outside the box, especially in television.
On the history of deaf cinema:
JN: Deaf people have always made films. The first deaf producers were The National Association of the Deaf (USA). One of the major projects implemented by the NAD, between 1910-1920, was what I called a “Heroic Film Project” of 13 silent 35mm films. The goal was survival. It allowed for self-preservation of sign language and Deaf Culture.... Our language is visual; film, as it is meant to be, is visual. The film is our pen.... I’m not a linguist but I know without a doubt that some of the characteristics of sign language is akin to film language, e.g., medium shot, long shot, close up.
On Hollywood's treatment of deaf people:
SS: When I started acting 8 years ago, I was the only deaf person in the room on several occasions when I auditioned for characters that were written as deaf. Now the room is almost always full of deaf people, and very rarely do you see hearing actors read for roles written as deaf. I think Hollywood has become a lot more politically correct in that sense, and they're very aware of the specific needs that different people have. I think they're more informed about the need for interpreters and how important it is, and I see an increase in the demand for ASL consultants on set when it comes to story lines concerning deaf people.
On defining deaf cinema:
SS: The spectrum of deaf people is very varied, so the experience that comes along with that is equally diverse. I think that people often make the mistake of thinking that just because mainstream entertainment may include a deaf character or story line in a production that it is there to educate the audience about the deaf experience. Most of the time, they're there because they aid the general story line, and deaf cinema is really where you should look if you're looking for something along those lines.
JN: I am reluctant to define Deaf Cinema since it is an on going discussion. Some of us are wondering if there are ways to carry over Sign Language linguistic principles cinematically through camera shots, editing, eye gaze, or sign language storytelling “style"? Some are experimenting with editing techniques that incorporate certain characteristics of our sign language, eye gaze for one. How does a deaf person know when to look at another person signing while in group. Some filmmakers are editing that way. It’s an instinctive thing with some deaf filmmakers.
[Interviews were edited for length and clarity.]