Aesthetically simple, socially complicated

See What I'm Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary

on March 24, 2010 by Tim Cogshell

See What I'm Saying: The Deaf Entertainers Documentary is the clever title of this doc about hearing-impaired entertainers, among them a comedian, an actor, the drummer in an all-deaf rock band and a singer/performance artist. There is a particular kind of drama associated with films (especially documentaries) about the physically impaired that relates to the uncertainty we feel about interfacing with the subject of impairment. The tricky thing here is that one’s feelings about this subject necessarily affect how one feels about the film itself. This is true in the case of most documentaries but is never so pointed as when the issue at hand touches the lives of those affected on such a constant basis. See What I’m Saying is at once heartbreaking and irritating, enlightening and boring, but frankly not aesthetically well made in any particular way. All this makes it hard to say how theatrical audiences might respond to the film if they were to see See What I'm Saying, but the likelihood of many heading out to see it is fairly low.

Our protagonists include deaf comic C.J. Jones, who it’s noted several times in the film is both famous and funny to the deaf community. That someone so successful needs to repeatedly assert his success is irritating. The underlying complaint here is that the hearing community is remiss its lack of recognition of Mr. Jones and does not get just how funny he is. Jones seems funny, but the issue is that only people aware of ASL (American Sign Language) and its many subtleties can understand the nuances of his performance. Repeated admission of his fame and funniness feels particularly whinny coming from a plainly successful and beloved person who is in fact quite famous and loved by many, even if most of the people who've heard of him (so the speak) are deaf. I must admit, I feel profoundly uncomfortable noting this; I apologize if doing so is inappropriate.

Robert DeMayo is an actor with a unique skill set, but as his skills are in fact very unique they’re applicable in very few places. At the end of the day he's got to play the deaf guy, no matter the context. He occasionally teaches ASL at the prestigious Julliard School where he has mastered the art of instructing the hearing in how to communicate with the deaf. He is a jubilant person with an infectious personality, yet he is homeless and HIV positive. Heartbreaking.

Bob Hiltermann is the deaf drummer of an all-deaf rock band. The band is not good yet they rock on, which also leaves one uncertain of how to feel about Bob's rock star dreams. They cannot help but seem silly and self-defeating, yet they are his dreams and who is anyone to call a man’s dreams silly and self-defeating? T.L. Fosberg is referred to as hearing impaired rather than deaf, which apparently is an issue in the deaf community. A mediocre user of ASL, she is neither fish nor foul and thus feels alienated from both worlds. She is also insanely beautiful which makes her complaints, by default, irritating. Still, her performances are interesting, if her choice in performance activities, given the range of artistic options she has at her fingertips, is hard to see sense in.

Collectively it's all fairly enlightening. It is the presentation of the broader subject and the details of what it means to be deaf in the world of the hearing, especially when the hearing world is so deeply, brutally oblivious to the deaf that actually captivates. For this I personally apologize.

Distributor: Wordplay Inc.
Cast: C.J. Jones, Robert DeMayo, Bob Hitlermann and TL Forsberg
Director/Producer: Hilari Scarl
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 90 mins.
Release date: March 19 LA

Tags: documentary, C.J. Jones, Robert DeMayo, Bob Hitlermann, TL Forsberg, Hilari Scarl, American Sign Language, ASL, deaf, disability, sign language

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