See What I'm Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary
See What I'm Saying is an irreverent yet important introduction between Deaf performers and a mainstream hearing audience. The film, which is open captioned, follows a year in the lives of four performers who make up a cross-section of the Deaf community in terms of art form, race, gender, and sexuality. One performer identifies as hard of hearing rather than deaf, but wishes to be accepted as a part of Deaf culture.
Before I go on, a few definitions:
Deaf Culture: Deaf with a capital “D” means a specific reference to the largely American Sign Language (ASL) using community, and the media, theatre, comedy, music, history, and other aspects of any culture transmitted through language. Deaf with a lowercase “d” means the generic description for someone who can’t hear, whether they are a part of the Deaf community or not. The film goes a long way toward making this clearer, as well as succinctly demonstrating various different ways of communicating using speech and sign.
Open Captions: See What I'm Saying has the captions burned into the film itself, and there is no way to turn them off. Every print of the film in every cinema is captioned. The captions also include descriptions of incidental sounds and music, but are otherwise like watching a subtitled foreign film. This is a huge deal for a film on release at major cinemas. The film is also voice-interpreted where necessary, so there is a continuous signed, spoken, and captioned narrative.
Now, back to the review. The four performers featured are really engaging people. Bob Hilterman is an old school rocker who, Blues Brothers style, decides to get his former band back together for one last show. Everyone in the band is Deaf and all the guys are really funny, as is their repartee when they finally get together and start rehearsing again.
CJ Jones is a comedian with a level of success on the scale of, perhaps, Robin Williams, going by reactions of his fans when they spot him at Deaf events. His humour is a mix of storytelling, improvisation and observation, and he’s a comic actor as well. The film follows his well-deserved but not always fruitful attempts to break into mainstream comedy and television.
Robert DeMayo is an admirably centered person who can talk about his difficult past with honesty and understanding for people who’ve let him down. He’s an amazingly gifted storyteller and comic mime artist, and it’s a shame there wasn’t time to feature more of his work in the film. I could watch his stuff all day.
TL Forsberg is the youngest performer, the only woman, and also the only artist whose journey specifically relates to being accepted by the Deaf community, while the others are followed trying to achieve success with hearing audiences. This juxtaposition adds further depth to the audience’s understanding of the difficulties of "crossing over." In fact, any minority artist or from any underground art form could relate to the difficulties portrayed in See What I'm Saying.
Hilari Scarl, a hearing performer and director who worked as a voicing actor with the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD), decided to make the film after noticing that once the tour was finished, she was getting work and her deaf colleagues just... weren’t. Scarl became passionate about this issue and used her considerable skills as a producer to make this happen. She does not come across as an outsider but, to this hearing reviewer in any case, as part of the scene. Her drive as a filmmaker was evident when I spoke to her, and she had a dedicated team of performers, promoters, volunteers and friends, as well as the financial backing of a few major corporations. It is her hope that these and other Deaf performers will receive the attention they clearly deserve.