La Famille Bélier / The Bélier Family

The French film, “La Famille Bélier” (The Bélier Family) is apparently being boycotted. Why? One may ask.

Here is a couple of (quoted) paragraphs from the deaf sportspeople to give you an insight;

“The film uses hearing actors to play the roles of deaf characters, the result of which is an embarrassing and crass interpretation of deaf culture and sign language. Make no mistake, this is like blacking up for the Black and White Minstrel Show. Couldn’t find any deaf actors? Just get some hearing ones to wave their hands about. It shows a level of disrespect for deaf people and disregard for a genuine language with the nuances of any spoken language. In the UK there is a pool of experienced deaf actors and sign language interpreters. If the same exist in France, shouldn’t the makers of Le Famille Bélier have called upon them? And if they don’t exist, we should be asking why not.

Deaf people’s culture and experiences have long been appropriated for the fascination and entertainment of others, and in the process kneaded into a bastardisation bearing no resemblance to real-life experiences, because it is rare that deaf people are actually involved in the production process. Accurate representation of deafness is a good thing, it can entertain and educate in equal measures – but films and TV shows about deaf characters, told through a hearing lens, using hearing actors with pidgin sign language, are demeaning, depressing and cause more damage then good.

My initial reaction after reading through it all was to think objectively (as always) and responded to several links of the source (as written by Rebecca Atkinson of The Guardian) which is being widely publically shared hence my now, very public thought on this topic.

When the casting team find an actor or actress who happens to be deaf and experienced enough to play the part satisfactorily then they may sign them. Just like with the Olympics, if athletes meet the standards they then qualify to compete. The very same qualification process applies to deaf sportspeople too.

I do not see why (deaf) people seem to keep spitting their dummies out all the time – has any deaf people actually auditioned for the part?? Some are dubious as to whether they actively sought deaf actors out for the part but nonetheless I am sure they advertised and did their research as all films and actors do as that is their job and one would hope they fulfilled the requirements.

It is being portrayed overall as an insult to the deaf community when this does not mean it is the general consensus of the whole yet very diverse deaf community but individual interpretations based on personal experiences and emotions which are most likely reactions upon impulse. Just because some people are boycotting this film whilst encouraging others to do the same, does not mean everyone else needs to follow suit.

 “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle.

~ SJ (Sara Jae)

Sign Language in Cinema.

I recently watched a film called “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”. In the film the apes’ primary form of communication wasAmerican Sign Language and as a deaf person it was appealing to see sign language being represented, especially in Cinema. Yet someone who happens to be hearing made it known to me they felt it was rather insulting – their argument was that the apes in the film were less developed than the humans and to see them representing sign language was, degrading. Had it stayed true to their own form of gesturing naturally, it would be a different matter. I realised where this person was coming from so was I appreciating the fact that sign language was being used in the film, a result of desperation more than anything – a case of anything will do? As sign language very rarely feature in cinema or TV as a form of communication in its own merit.

Blue Eyes signing to his father, Caesar, that Koba killed Ash.
Blue Eyes signing to his father, Caesar, that Koba killed Ash.

There are films where sign language features heavily but that is only when the subject matter concerns deafness. Will it ever be possible for a deaf actor to be the lead character in mainstream cinema? It might be farfetched but it is definitely something that deaf people deserve to look forward to once in a while in terms of inclusion. Blockbusters in general are about generating as much profit as possible and having a lead character with a disability however hidden or obvious it may be, seems to be too much of a risk for the producers to take. But if the storyline was exceptional and the film was brilliantly made, I would not predict any issues in regards to the number of the potential audience turning up to watch.

Can you think of a film that uses sign language as an alternative form of language by the actors regardless of whether they may be hearing or deaf and the subject matter does not concern deafness?

Of all the films to date that have used a deaf actor or sign language in it, which film do you think has done the most justice?

Sign language is one of the most expressive languages but when is it wrong for someone to use/represent it?

I found the initial debate rather interesting and wanted to explore those questions further, I certainly feel that a lot needs to be done for sign language to be accepted in mainstream culture. You too can contribute with your thoughts and suggestions in order to help our debate come to a conclusion of sorts .

Carpe diem!

~ SJ (Sara Jae)