In feature films the deaf have made for exotic yet sympathetic characters. From Jane Wyman as the saintly eponymous innocent in “Johnny Belinda” (1948) to Marlee Matlin’s Oscar-winning turn as a self-possessed, sexually confidant woman in “Children of a Lesser God” (1986), their portrayal measures our society’s slow acknowledgment that the deaf are, well, people. It is hard from this distance to fathom that Helen Keller was once a figure of worldwide fame, but the Broadway play and film, “The Miracle Worker,” enshrines her in our memory as a wild child brought to personal enlightenment through the ministrations of her similarly “afflicted” teacher, Annie Sullivan.
Yet only since the deaf assumed their own political power in the last few decades, starting with the demand in 1988 for a deaf president to lead Gallaudet University — the most prominent American school of higher education for the deaf — have we begun to understand deafness not only as a minority physical status, but as a cultural one as well.
“Deaf Jam,” a 70-minute documentary screening May 10 at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, focuses on a teenage Israeli immigrant, Aneta Brodski, and a cohort of her high school friends at the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens. Split roughly into two sections, the film tells the tale of how these young people navigate their way into the hearing world’s lively hip-hop scene of spoken word poetry jams by using American Sign Language (ASL) in its most expressive, even theatrical dimensions. Later, as Aneta’s friends at Lexington leave to pursue higher education elsewhere, the film homes in on Aneta, who joins forces with a hearing poetry slammer, Tahani, a student at Columbia University. As luck would have it, Tahani is of Palestinian heritage. The two young women form an affectionate partnership, Muslim and Jew, where collaboration between spoken and “pictorial” sign language creates a hybrid that can bridge the deaf and hearing worlds.