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Sign Language of the Times

Image by courtesy of gat pr

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 confident woman in “Children of a Lesser God” (1986), the portrayal of deaf characters measures our society’s slow acknowledgment that the deaf are, well, people.

But only since the deaf assumed their own political power, 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 in May at the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, focuses on teenage Israeli immigrant Aneta Brodski and a cohort of her high school friends at the Lexington School for the Deaf, in Queens. The film tells the tale of how these young people make their way into the hearing world’s lively spoken-word poetry jam scene by using American Sign Language in its most expressive, even theatrical dimensions. Later, as the Lexington students leave to pursue higher education elsewhere, the film homes in on Aneta, who joins forces with a hearing poetry slammer, Tahani, a student of Palestinian heritage at Columbia University.

Director Judy Lieff’s multiple cameras capture how the enclosed world at Lexington produces a familial camaraderie among the deaf teenagers. Many of these students have traveled up through the grades since they were children, like Aneta’s best friend, Shiran, also an Israeli immigrant. We see the shared defensiveness among these kids as they navigate a world that keeps them isolated in their deaf enclaves, and we witness them creating bonds of mutual support that transcend racial barriers.

It is a delight to watch these sisters and brothers of various cultures signing among themselves with lively ferocity. As they explore the fullest poetic measure of their native sign language with adult ASL teachers, we see the beauty of signing and its capacity for imaginative and spontaneous invention. One of the delights of the documentary’s early scenes is watching the variety of facial, hand and arm gestures and full body maneuvers, all of which give sign language the capacity to be as fully concrete or intellectually abstract as the spoken word. We marvel as Aneta and her friends, male and female, twist their features and contort their bodies in vivid displays of quicksilver communication.

It would be nice to report that the film’s narrative equals the interest of its real-life characters, but there is the occasional lapse into the didactic. Lieff attempts to educate her audience about deaf history — the suppression of sign language in deaf education lasted nearly a century in favor of enforced “oralism”— and about new challenges to the community, like the cochlear implant, that threaten to diminish the number of deaf people and weaken the bonds of deaf culture. However worthy, these scenes detour the main plot. And while Lieff finds wonderful visual cinematic equivalents for subtitling her young ASL slam poets, the emotional core of Aneta, Shiran and Tahani’s lives are never fully examined, and the Muslim-Jewish issue between Aneta and Tahani remains undeveloped.

Aneta and Shiran are deaf, but they also happen to be bright, energetic, sometimes raucous and angry young women, each with a family story that might well have made its own film. As an introduction to deaf culture, “Deaf Jam” will expand the minds of many in the hearing community. But the film might have done better to aim straight for the heart, which is where these kids live.

Allen Ellenzweig is an arts critic and cultural journalist who lives in New York City.

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