Sign language and the sound of silence

Will Smith’s slap might have resonated strongly, claimed wide attention and elicited immediate outrage, but it was the omnipresence of the sign language and the sound of silence that was the most striking aspect of the Oscars this year.

Hearing-impaired American star Marlee Matlin met with deafening applause at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles back in 1987 when she won the best actress trophy for her debut performance in Randa Haines’ Children of a Lesser God at the 59th Academy Awards. The first deaf actor to win the award, she gave her acceptance speech in sign language which was interpreted alongside in English.

Something similar happened 35 years later last week at LA’s Dolby Theatre at the 94th Academy Awards as Troy Kotsur became the first deaf male actor to bag the best-supporting actor award for Sian Heder’s CODA. He was much more garrulous in his acceptance speech than Matlin, who also happens to play his wife in CODA. Kotsur was talking—rather signing—nineteen to the dozen about the visit to the White House and joking mischievously about how he desisted from teaching dirty sign language to the President. He remembered his dad being the best singer in their family and how unfortunately he was unable to sing after getting paralysed neck down in a car accident.

“I really want to thank all of the wonderful deaf theatre stages where I was allowed and given the opportunity to develop my craft as an actor,” said Kotsur, dedicating the award to the deaf community, the CODA community and the disabled community. “This is our moment,” he asserted triumphantly as a translator spoke his thoughts out loud for those who couldn’t get them.

Heder, who won an award for best-adapted screenplay for the film, also spoke about the contribution of her collaborators in the deaf and CODA community but, in her case, inversely, the speech got translated from English to sign language even as she herself signed “I Love You”.

The most heartening sight was rows and rows of superstars—from Nicole Kidman to Lily James—on their feet, celebrating the big win for CODA, moving their hands as a sign of silent claps as the film became the first with a predominantly deaf cast to win the best picture Oscar.

While a slap might have resonated strongly, claimed wide attention and elicited immediate outrage, it was the omnipresence of the sign language (with the ceremony boasting of the most elaborate arrangement for translation ever) and the sound of silence that was the most striking aspect about the Oscars this year, an event that will go down in history not just for a star’s scandalous behaviour but for its own inclusivity and accessibility, as an event that was claimed by and belonged to the deaf community.

Kotsur called Heder a great communicator for bringing the deaf world and the hearing world together in CODA, and, in turn, on the Oscar stage. “You are our bridge. And your name will forever be on that bridge, Sian Heder bridge here in Hollywood,” he said.

It’s this intersectionality of the two worlds—of the deaf and the hearing—at the ceremony and on-screen—not just in CODA but also in the best foreign-language film winner, Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, and in the short documentary nominee, Matthew Ogens’ Audible—that has been such a heartwarming takeaway. After focusing on race, gender and sexuality, #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo, it was for the deaf, and, in turn, people with disabilities, to have their moment under the Oscar sun.

CODA might be about a child of deaf adults, the dilemmas of a teenage girl, the only hearing member in the deaf Rossi family, who finds herself caught between her passion for music and her commitment to the parents and sibling, but it gives space, time and complexity to its deaf characters. They are people with conflicting emotions, with strength and sensitivity as well as flaws, frailties and fallibilities, with a sense of fun and a risque sense of humour. The film is compassionate but doesn’t shower them with righteous pity or sympathy, nor does it pedestalise them. It just shows them for who they are. Human beings.

The protagonist of Drive My Car, actor and theatre director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijama) is a personification of inclusivity. He staunchly believes in his productions being a playground of and collaboration for various languages, experimenting with them all in shows and using captions for interpretation. Sign language then is another way to express and communicate, just like Japanese or Korean or English in his multilingual adaptation of a Russian original Anton Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.

More than that, the crux of the film, the philosophy underlying it, is summed up in the long and beautiful, silent, closing monologue, with the deaf and mute South Korean actor Lee Yoo-na (Park Yu-rim) as Sonya in Chekov’s play within the film, signing about loss, pain, suffering and reconciliation. With hands that can say more than the eyes or the voice and gestures which are more meaningful than words, she dwells on the finality of death, about not being able to reclaim those who are gone. All that’s left for those who survive is to preserve the dead in their memories. Life might be hard, but we will have to endure the trials that fate sends our way. When the last hour comes, we will go quietly, we will find rest eventually when the time comes. But till then we have to follow the only truth that there is: “We must live our lives”.

Audible, the short nominee, that one hasn’t been able to see so far in India, is set in the Maryland School for the Deaf, and follows its champion football team through the victories as well as the loss of a friend to suicide.

The three films this year make one pause and look back on Oscar’s engagement, and in turn the film industry, with the hearing impaired over the years. From being on the margins of the story, the characters have grown more nuanced, layered and central. It’s not just a fight for representation now but a rightful one. So, a deaf and mute “dummy” Belinda from the 1948 Johnny Belinda, directed by Jean Negulesco, that won the Oscar for the hearing actor Jane Wyman in the role, would not just be out of place but politically incorrect in its portrayal of a hapless woman who got raped because she couldn’t shout for help.

Since then, there have been other instances of hearing actors playing deaf and mute characters and bringing home the Oscar, including Patty Duke as the deaf and blind Helen Keller in Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker (1962) and Holly Hunter as the mute Ada in Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993).2018 had two winning films centred on the lives of the deaf. Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water and Chris Overton’s The Silent Child. While the latter won the Best Live Action Short film, the del Toro fantasy got 13 nominations and won for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Best Original Score.

The Silent Child is about how sign language helps a lonely deaf girl, in a hearing family, learn to communicate. In The Shape of Water Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a janitor who is mute, uses sign language to communicate and finds love in a humanoid. While the film has oodles of compassion and positivity, Hawkins got criticised for her stilted use of the sign language.

Last year, at the Oscars there was another significant film centred on hearing impairment. Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal was nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Ahmed) and Best Supporting Actor (Paul Raci, who, incidentally, is a CODA plays the role of a deaf addiction counsellor) and won for Best Sound and Best Film Editing. It boasts of, arguably, Riz Ahmed’s best performance as a heavy metal drummer Ruben Stone facing hearing loss. It takes him on a roller coaster of emotions—from denial to rage, anxiety, depression to reconciliation and finding peace with his condition and living in a deaf commune.

While the lead may have been played by a hearing person, the film is significant in bringing to fore the otherwise invisible deaf culture. On a day out with the press at the 2019 Toronto International Film festival, following the film’s world premiere, Ahmed spoke about learning sign language for one and a half hours every day from Jeremy Stone, the artistic director of American Sign Language and how the film transformed his relationship with silence: “When you sit in silence, you sit in a void. You have to face yourself”.

According to the film website Indiewire, “59 non-disabled actors have earned Oscar nominations for playing disabled characters. History suggests that those nominees have nearly a 50% shot at a win.” CODA, like Children of a Lesser God, marks a big shift in this statistical picture. It’s not just about deaf characters but about them being played by deaf actors. Besides Kotsur and Matlin, it also has Daniel Durant playing their son.

John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place (2018) and its 2020 sequel, though never in the Oscar race, have been appreciated for the use of silence and sign language in narrating the horror story about the Abbott family fighting monsters with an acute sense of sound. It has been particularly liked for casting a talented young deaf actor, Millicent Simmonds, in the role of the intelligent, headstrong and rebellious deaf daughter Regan.

It’s not just about characters and stories now but also the hearing-impaired actors gaining visibility and claiming a right to represent their own stories, telling them their own way, bringing in authenticity. If deafness is their identity, they also have the right to portray it the right way. Something, they feel, will go a long way in normalising deaf culture in cinema.

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