Maine Deaf Film Festival is always a welcome and exciting addition to the Maine movie scene. The annual celebration of films made by and/or featuring deaf filmmakers and actors has been a highlight of Maine’s film calendar for all of its 18 seasons (minus a few scuttled pandemic years), bringing deaf and hearing moviegoers at the University of Portland campus in southern Maine, looking for movies they would have otherwise missed. That’s what a good film festival does, after all.
But this year’s event, on Friday and Saturday, coincidentally falls just when the profile of deaf cinema is at its highest.
“This is truly the year of representation,” said Sandra Wood, organizer of the Maine Deaf Film Festival and professor of linguistics at USM. Citing not only last week’s Oscars for Best Picture “CODA” and Best Supporting Actor Troy Kotsur, but other high-profile films like Marvel’s”The Eternalsand Oscar-nominated short filmAudible“, Wood – who spoke to me on Zoom through the video chat service’s automatic transcription feature – says deaf cinema definitely has a moment. Even if Hollywood still has a long way to go.
This year’s centerpiece Maine Deaf Film Festival East “What?a modern-day silent comedy directed by Alek Lev and starring John Maucere as a naturally deaf actor frustrated by the lack of opportunities in Hollywood, especially after a not deaf but “bankable” star was cast as deaf in a role Maucere’s long-suffering comedian really wants. What follows is a hilarious, inventive and illuminating encapsulation of the difficulty for deaf film professionals, all presented in a comedic Chaplin style.
Maucere, himself an accomplished actor (“Law & Order”, “Southland”, “Switched at Birth”), no doubt channels career experience into his performance as a talented deaf actor dealing with an industry filled with prejudice and contempt. in what?” The same goes for his castmates, with co-star Sheena Lyles appearing at this year’s festival to share his own experiences as a Deaf actor in a world where significant Deaf representation at the screen remains incredibly elusive.
“But what about ‘CODA’?”, I hear you ask. After all, this year’s best picture winner (whose title is an acronym for “child of deaf adults”) puts its deaf characters almost entirely in the spotlight, with Kotsur also recently seen in “The Mandalorian” and ” The Book of Boba Fett” (where he invented the Tusken Raiders’ unique sign language), winning himself an Oscar. (Kotsur’s wife in the film is played by Marlee Matlin, who became the first deaf person to win an Oscar for “Children of a Lesser God” in 1986.) These are all undeniably good and deserving things, and – we can hope – will lead to greater opportunities for the many deaf actors, writers and directors looking to break into the big time.
And yet, as Sandra Wood explained to me in a carefully composed text, “CODA” still perpetuates some of the same tropes and tendencies that have always plagued the deaf. Wood points out that, despite many real-life children of deaf adults auditioning to play the central family’s only hearing, singing-obsessed protagonist, the filmmakers went with actress Emilia Jones, who, in addition to not being a CODA herself, didn’t know how to sign or sing. As Wood notes, the CODA community is itself complex and large. With Wood pointing me to a Facebook post by the actor and CODA activist Jodee Mundy, I was struck by Mundy’s definition of herself. “I’m a hearing, deaf-hearted, native singer,” writes Mundy, a distinction that makes casting Jones far more problematic than I had imagined.
Critics of the film also pointed out how some of the conflicts in “CODA” ignore certain aspects of the Deaf experience to present a world where Deaf people are unable to function without the assistance of a hearing person. Additionally, Wood also pointed out that Oscar-winning Kotsur’s achievement is even more impressive — if you know anything about the deaf community and the complex ways deaf people communicate. Kotsur’s signature, often awkwardly expressive American Sign Language as “CODA” Frank Rossi differs markedly from Kotsur’s own speech, a nuance that Wood notes most people would not recognize. I certainly didn’t.
Is all of this fussy? Not if you care about the real issues facing Deaf people, both inside and outside of the Hollywood system – something the Maine Deaf Film Festival program will present in all its fullness. The movies have a long and regrettable history of well-meaning patronizing when it comes to its “progressive” and feel-good hits in big-screen representation. In dramas about the black experience like “Cry Freedom,” “Mississippi Burning,” or “The Help,” it’s pretty egregious how the filmmakers cast white leads to draw white audiences into reluctant empathy. Quoting a colleague about “CODA’s” own representational issues, Wood notes, “It would be like having a movie called ‘QUEER’ and casting all the straight actors.”
The films at this year’s Maine Deaf Film Festival, on the other hand, are made by people from the deaf community, behind and in front of the cameras. Wood says that, as always, deaf and hearing audiences will find something to enjoy, with subtitles making the films accessible to everyone and post-film discussions led and accompanied by sign language interpreters. So whether you hear it or not, the Maine Deaf Film Festival promises two full days of thought-provoking (and excitingly topical) cinematic entertainment.
The Maine Deaf Film Festival takes place Friday from 5-8:30 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. at USM’s Talbot Lecture Hall, 85 Bedford St., Portland. Tickets are $10 per day, with children under 12 and students with valid USM ID entering free.
Dennis Perkins lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.
Live music program: Lettuce, a funk sextet sandwiched between two singer-songwriters