In The Land Of The Deaf

  • 1994
  • 1 HR 39 MIN
  • NR
  • Documentary

This unsentimental, uplifting documentary takes us into the land of the deaf, a figurative nation comprising at least 160 million people worldwide. Thankfully, this is no dreary lecture about issues confronting the deaf, but an illuminating celebration of what amounts to an alternative culture, exploring not only sign language, but also the vital, polymorphous...read more

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This unsentimental, uplifting documentary takes us into the land of the deaf, a figurative nation comprising at least 160 million people worldwide. Thankfully, this is no dreary lecture about issues confronting the deaf, but an illuminating celebration of what amounts to an alternative

culture, exploring not only sign language, but also the vital, polymorphous properties of language in general.

In the early 1980s, French director Nicolas Philibert was asked to make an educational film about sign language. Knowing little about the subject, he enrolled in a sign language class taught by a deaf instructor. The filmmaker quickly realized that he was being taught, not by a "handicapped"

person, but by someone with a remarkably rich capacity for expression. Although the educational film was never made, Philibert's interest bore fruit a decade later with IN THE LAND OF THE DEAF.

Through interviews with children, teenagers, and adults, the film reveals the diversity of the community of the deaf. Most of those interviewed have been totally deaf since birth; some lost hearing later in life. Some grew up in hearing families, others in deaf families (one subject comes from a

family which has been deaf for five generations). Despite such distinctions, however, deafness cuts across lines of gender, race, nationality, and class, resulting in a remarkable sense of commonality among the hearing-impaired. This solidarity is enhanced by the nature of sign language: systems

founded on "natural signs"--gestures that stand directly for concepts, as opposed to the "finger spelling" of words--are virtually international, and accomplished signers can usually learn to communicate with deaf people anywhere in the world in a matter of days.

The film also visits two remarkable schools, one for students of sign language, the other for deaf children. Jean-Claude Poulain is a charismatic sign teacher who "speaks" with great eloquence and intelligence about deafness, suggesting that communication among the deaf is both more

sophisticated and more expressive than ordinary spoken language. At the children's school, principal Denis Azra and teachers Odile Ghermani and Babette Deboissy appear singularly compassionate and dedicated; the children are both responsive and attentive (one extraordinarily sensitive and loving

child, Florent, almost steals the show).

Far from regarding their deafness as a handicap, many of the subjects celebrate their status. One young man explains that he was once fitted for a hearing aid, but unplugged it after a few days of urban noise, preferring the blissfully silent world into which he was born. The beauty of sign

language is particularly cherished by many of those interviewed, who feel it is more flexible and poetic than any spoken language. But there are also stories of discrimination and challenges: one woman was placed in an asylum as a child; others recall teachers who tied deaf children's hands behind

their backs to discourage them from signing; a young deaf couple find it excruciatingly difficult to communicate clearly with a landlord as they try to rent an apartment.

Awarded prizes at several European film festivals, IN THE LAND OF THE DEAF provides a new perspective on deafness that is at once deeply affecting and intellectually vital. Poulain adjures at one point: "Don't despair if you have a deaf child." After seeing this film, no one is likely to.

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