Wednesday, August 3


Land of Sound and Light

I remember during the pre-release media blitz for Ray, learning that Taylor Hackford had "shown" a cut of the film to Ray Charles, wondering if this was perhaps the first time that a Hollywood film had been made with a blind audience specifically in mind. Many blind people enjoy movies at home and even in theatres, and did so even before the days of descriptive audio tracks. But since it's counter-intuitive for a sighted person to think of an experience as visual as a motion picture as something they might be interested in, blind people have generally been the last minority group to be considered as a potential audience for films. One result of this is that blind characters in films have disproportionably appeared as vengeful villains, or in patronizing portrayals. This aspect of Hollywood history was extensively (though by no means exhaustively) chronicled by Martin F. Norden in his 1994 book The Cinema of Isolation, which also documents examples of Hollywood's portrayals of people with other disabilities such as deafness.

I'm reminded of all this because I just watched the new DVD of Werner Herzog's 1971 Land of Silence and Darkness, which follows the work of Fini Strauberger, a deaf and blind woman devoted to helping open paths of communication for others coping with blindness and deafness. She teaches an alphabet of hand strokes to people who have never really expressed themselves, or to people on the verge of losing what little vision and/or hearing they have left. It's a truly remarkable film that opens a wider window onto the idea that we humans are all dependant on one another, if not literally like the young man who does not know night from day and who communicates only by digging his fingernails into Strauberger's skin, then spiritually. It's all the more astonishing in that Herzog says he shot no more than 4 hours of footage for this 80-minute film. Most documentaries are edited down from hundreds of hours of raw footage. Clearly Herzog and Strauberger were on exactly the same page of understanding what was needed for the film to make it affect the hearing, sighted audiences they hoped would see it.

Perhaps it was not the best model to have in mind when watching a more recent (2000) documentary on the clash between deaf culture and hearing culture, Sound and Fury. It couldn't help but suffer by comparison. The approach is completely different, of course. Sound and Fury director Josh Aronson has located a family at the nexus of a very controversial topic for the deaf community: the cochlear implant, an electronic device meant to help deaf people approximate hearing. Two brothers, one deaf and one hearing, are at the point of deciding whether to implant the device in their young deaf children. Aronson seems to be trying to show us an issue from multiple sides, in an attempt at balance. But, and this is exacerbated by shortcomings in the Docurama DVD release (the main one being no subtitles or closed captioning, despite a little symbol on the back of the disc), he has made decisions that help nudge a hearing viewer into the pro-cochlear direction, and others that nudge a deaf viewer into the anti-cochlear direction.

Take, for example, the voiceover track attached as translation for all the deaf characters' sign language. I'm sure the intention of using a voiceover rather than subtitles was to make the film more accessible to a broader hearing audience, including people who are resistant to reading subtitles, but the effect is actually more distancing, at least for this viewer. The voice actors' performances often feel inauthentic, as if they were re-enactments like those found in so many made-for-television documentaries. And since the hearing characters get to speak with their own authentic voices, the empathy deck is stacked in their favor, at least for a hearing, non-signing viewer. Especially since their use of spoken English can obfuscate the fact that some of them (the grandmother, for example) are not very good at signing.

Conversely, hearing viewers are privy to information that a deaf viewer will miss. One of the most startling scenes for a hearing viewer is when 5-year-old Heather goes to visit Nancy, a 10-year-old girl with a cochlear implant. This is the first opportunity we have to hear someone with the implant who is still involved in deaf culture (like Heather, both of Nancy's parents are deaf) speak. She and her parents relate that her hearing grandparents say her speech is "perfect," but is clearly not. To be blunt, it was barely understandable to this viewer (though I'm sure if I spent time around Nancy I'd quickly get used to it). This is the first moment when I really started to question the motives of the medical professionals advocating for an implant for Heather. And it would be unnoticed by a deaf viewer. Not surprisingly, there was quite an outcry from some in the deaf community about the film's lack of balance when it was originally released.

The trouble with so many documentaries that try to present controversy is that it makes it hard for people to allow themselves to have a personal relationship with the film, especially if the issue it particularly close to them. The temptation to view the film through the lens of what others might think of it is simply too strong, and it inevitably colors our own reactions to what's being shown on screen. (Obviously, people who write about films are especially susceptible to this.) That's one reason why Herzog's documentaries are so incredible. They force the viewer to watch with his or her own eyes and be aware of his or her own reactions. Land of Silence and Darkness does not polarize viewers into differing camps. It simply presents and asks us to consider.

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?