V–A–C Sreda online magazine presents a new issue dedicated to the Deaf community and their representation in culture and art. The material in the issue was prepared in collaboration with the representatives of the community.
We publish an essay by Polina Sineva, a screenwriter, showrunner, and researcher of the image of d/Deaf people in culture, in which she discusses the role of deaf actors in cinema through three films made by hearing directors: “Country of the Deaf” by Valery Todorovsky, “Chapiteaeu-show” by Sergey Loban, and “The Tribe” by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky. Sineva’s personal notes, reminiscent of Peter Handke’s unhurried passages or W. G. Sebald’s therapeutic essays, do not just bring to light important aspects of Deaf life on the cinematic plane, but touch upon the problematics of the community’s representation in contemporary visual culture.
For many years, I have noted a schism between hearing and deaf viewers of films featuring deaf characters. This was particularly the case with Valery Todorovsky’s 1998 film Country of the Deaf, based on Renata Litvinova’s novel To Own and Belong. On the one hand, Todorovsky’s film really does half open the door to Deaf culture—its main character’s particular perception of life acquaints viewers with a world about which they may never have even thought about. My hearing colleague was so inspired by the film that she learned sign-language and became a translator. However, Deaf people’s hopeful expectation of seeing their own personal stories in Todorovsky’s directorial narrative turned into indignation—in their view, the film strengthened myths of the marginality of the Russian Deaf community, and the title of the film was an unjustified generalisation. Moreover, there were no subtitles at the premiere. Despite the fact that the film touches upon real problems in the life of the Deaf community, d/Deaf viewers left the cinema halls with the words: “That is not my country of the Deaf.”
Firstly, the central characters of the film were not deaf artists or constructors, but people from marginal spheres—bandits, strippers, prostitutes. This was why the film played an important role in the formation of a false conception of the Deaf community and fastened negative labels to it for a long time. I still recall the leaflets you would find on the clothing market at Luzhniki at the end of the 1990s: “Beware, deaf thieves.” After the release of Country of the Deaf, journalists in the hearing press focused their attention on d/Deaf mafia showdowns and the adventures of “brelochniki” [a slang term for souvenir vendors—editor’s note], leaving other aspects of the community without attention.
Secondly, the deaf heroine of Country of the Deaf was played by a hearing actress, who spoke in a distorted sign language and created a fairly eccentric image. In the world of the Deaf, the opinions of the hearing are experienced painfully, but they comprise the overwhelming majority. Their optic is important to us because it provides an understanding of how we (the Deaf community) “look” in their eyes, but, at the same time, we reject their optic completely—their picture is far from our reality. The feelings of Deaf viewers of Country of the Deaf are understandable to me: this “birth trauma” naturally follows from the Deaf experience itself. When for your whole life other hearing people have told your stories, when you have been perceived as a “defect” and encountered no respect towards you as a person, when they ban sign language in the educational system, this undoubtedly leaves traces. “Wider” society in the collective consciousness of the Deaf is a dominating and censuring figure. I call this phenomena “Alien Voice Syndrome.” This voice has long oppressed and will continue to oppress us, though it is worth noting that today, for both the d/Deaf and the hearing, more and more opportunities for equal dialogue are appearing. The period of struggle is coming to an unhurried end.
Todorovsky struck precisely at this birth trauma: a hearing person, located outside the d/Deaf context, he filmed a story about the d/Deaf as he saw and understood them, but his vision did not correspond with the Deaf community’s view of themselves. According to his own words, Todorovsky did not set himself the task of making an ethnographic film—for him, sign language was more a pretty “ballet of the hands,” the correctness of which he was unable to objectively assess.
I first watched Country of the Deaf on videocassette with subtitles at the beginning of the 2000s—I borrowed the tape from the Deaf Club at the Theatre-Studio of Mimicry and Gesture in Moscow, which Todorovsky had visited with his film crew to look for people to participate in his film many years before. The deaf heroine in the Country of the Deaf, however, was played by the hearing actress Dina Korzun, and I clearly remember my reaction after watching the film: I didn’t believe her. I had never seen such “deaf people,” people with strange, almost extra-terrestrial movements and plasticity of the body. I asked myself two question: why does Yaya [the name of the deaf heroine in the film Country of the Deaf—editor’s note] behave herself in that way, and why did a hearing actress play a deaf character? Some time later, when I watched Todorovsky’s film again, it became clear to me from where this disappointment had arisen. I had wanted a recognisable Deaf person, a real “country of the Deaf,” but this was not really what the film was about. If you watch Country of the Deaf not as a film about the d/Deaf, but as a document of the epoch of the 1990s, then doubts over the significance of this work in the history of Russian cinema fall away—the film resounded across Russia after its release in 1998 and remains spoken about to this day, however, my two questions still stand. The first of them was exhaustively answered by Irena Moskvina, a consultant on Country of the Deaf, Russian sign language translator, and CODA [Child of a deaf adult—editor’s note].
According to Moskvina, Yaya’s character should first of all be interpreted through the novel on which Todorovsky’s film was based. In To Own and Belong, the actress, scriptwriter, and director Renata Litvinova drew on her experience of friendship with the deaf actress Elena Velichko and her observation of other deaf people. Elena became the prototype for Yaya, and the scriptwriter Yury Korotkov adapted the character in Litvinova’s novel to create the main character of Country of the Deaf. Irena remembers how Velichko studied acting at the Boris Shchukin Theatre Institute’s Theatre-Studio of Mimicry and Gesture and seemed an “absolutely unearthly creature.” The girl distanced herself from the deaf and strove towards the hearing, portraying herself as though she were one of them. Her signed speech [signed speech is a manually coded form of language—editor’s note] was highly idiosyncratic, even affected—she did not speak in sign language, but as it were mimicked it, providing an elegant demonstration that accompanied her voice, which is absolutely not characteristic of how Deaf people communicate. Elena was between two worlds, yet remained herself, which strongly distinguished her from others. And it was Elena that Irena Moskvina had in mind when she created the figure of Yaya together with the actress Dina Korzun:
“I referred to a concrete figure, which meant that I did not need to measure the dress for myself—it belonged to Elena. It is necessary to underline this red line: the film is absolutely not about the d/Deaf, but about the times when money ruled. If there had been the possibility of filming with deaf actors, I would have recommended Velichko herself.”
But Velichko could not have played Yaya: at the beginning of the 1990s, after finishing drama school, she immediately left for Canada to film Leningrad. Noyabr, an experimental film by Oleg Morozov and Andreas Christoph Schmidt. The girl’s further fate would be highly unusual—she married a hearing photographer, worked as a stripper, and died young.
My second question, why a hearing actress played Yaya, is also related to a difference in optic: to Todorovsky as a director, it was the organicity of the actor that was important, not sign language. Irena Moskvina remembers that discussing the choice of actor seemed inappropriate to her given she had a completely different task before her. Through their collaboration, Dina Korzun was able to play her role in a way that matched the concept of the film, and Yaya turned out exactly as Todorovsky had imagined her from the beginning. Moskvina approaches the problem of choosing deaf actors for the roles of d/Deaf characters more generally:
“For a hearing director, it is easier to work with with a hearing actor, to set and explain the task. To work with Deaf people, one has to understand their psychology and invite translators, and not everyone is ready to do this. Although there are undoubtedly talented and bright personalities in the Deaf community that should not be ignored. I hope that their role in cinema is only a matter of time. I look to tomorrow with optimism: a lot is changing today in the artistic sphere, and it is a good, promising vector.”
However, then, at the end of the 1990s, Country of the Deaf was unable to alter the situation in the artistic sphere and draw professional attention towards deaf actors—they were given too little screen-time. Would the fate of deaf actors in other cult projects—Sergey Loban’s 2011 Chapiteau-Show and Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s 2014 The Tribe—be the same?
Chapiteau-Show is an almost Bruegelic canvas composed of four novels by hearing authors: the director Sergey Loban and the screenwriter Marina Potapova. The film is known and cherished by most of my hearing acquaintances and colleagues. Deaf people have watched it significantly more rarely than they have Country of the Deaf, and I have yet to meet with angry reactions. Might this not be because in this epic film, the heroes play themselves, and go by their real names? In one part of the film, symbolically titled “Friendship,” Deaf actors actually played—Alexey Znamensky, Evgeny Erovenkov, Valery Zavadovsky, and Maxim Tiunov. Znamensky’s character is interesting to me—the hard of hearing Alyosha begins to feel constrained by his deaf friends from childhood and sets off for the South with a group of hearing “pioneers.” His old friends perceive this break as a betrayal, however, and his new friendship turns into bitter disappointment, culminating in his final monologue on the nature of lies. Interestingly, Znamensky spent a lot of time on set with his hearing colleagues, and this bothered his deaf colleagues. The screenwriter Marina Potapova observed these constant collisions of the deaf and the hard of hearing with real life—the former more often prefer to remain within the community, the latter to strive towards “wider” society. Isolation, internal rules, and language mean that the Deaf community can in a certain sense be seen as having a structure similar to that of a tribe. It is no accident that at the end of Chapiteau-Show, the film’s d/Deaf characters are ironically represented as a tribe of Indians with war paint.
It is important to note that Marina Potapova and Sergey Loban attended a sign language course and were therefore able to communicate with deaf actors independently. Moreover, a sign language translator, Varvara Romashkina, was present on set. After the film’s release, its creators organised a special screening for d/Deaf viewers with subtitles, in collaboration with the Centre of Education for the Deaf and of Sign Language. Deaf subculture and sign language first interested Sergey Loban after filming an inclusive festival of sign language song in Siberia in which Alexey Znamensky, then still a school boy, took part. From then on, they kept in touch, and in 2005 Loban invited Znamensky to participate in his film Dust, which includes a performance of one of Victor Tsoi’s songs in sign language. I think most people remember the film precisely because of this scene.
I have already mentioned Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi, a hearing director who wanted to film a story about the Deaf for many years. The school he studied at was opposite a college for the d/Deaf, and he often saw how hearing schoolboys would fight with deaf schoolboys. Myroslav was fascinated by their sign language. In 2009, Slaboshpytskyi shot a short film, Deafness, which became a kind of bridge to his first full-length film, The Tribe, which featured non-professional d/Deaf and hard of hearing actors from different cities—Grigory Fesenko, Yana Novikova, Alexander Sidelnikov, Alexander Osadchiy, and others. The film’s main character, Sergey, gets into a specialised college for the d/Deaf ruled by a criminal gang that goes by the name “The Tribe.” It is not difficult to imagine how harsh this place turns out to be. The film’s storyline of uncontrolled teenage cruelty and blossoming first love can elicit no other reaction than a scream, though the viewer never hears verbal language or music. The intermediary between Slaboshpytskyi and the deaf actors was Anfisa Khudashova, a translator of sign language and assistant director of The Tribe. She did not just translate Slaboshpytskyi’s directions, but explained to the actors in detail how best to act in various scenes.
This was a unique experiment in the history of cinema—a film shot entirely in Russian sign language without subtitles or a voiceover. The situation was as it were turned, with only d/Deaf viewers able to understand the conversations of the heroes while the hearing could only guess at what was taking place on screen. The camera in The Tribe moves in such a way that it seems as though the director is keeping his distance from the deaf characters. He looks at them from the position of an observer, as though they were an anthill, with each occupied by their own task. “The Tribe,” which had been only an ironic reference in Sergey Loban’s Chapiteau-Show, acquired a literal meaning in Slaboshpytskyi’s film.
The hearing public perceived The Tribe as an innovative film, given there had never been anything like it before. Opinion among the Deaf community was divided for various reasons, and countless discussions and videos appeared in which Deaf bloggers and viewers shared their impressions of the film in sign language. One incident in particular made a strong impression on me: during the premiere, a viewer fainted, not being able to stand a particularly gruesome scene in the film. Prior to this, it had seemed to me that the on-duty ambulances at the premieres of films by Lars Von Trier and Michael Haneke had been artistic exaggerations.
Why did not a single one of these projects start the career of a Deaf actor in cinema? It seems to me that an actor is in the first place a performer dependent on already created material. There are catastrophically few stories about the d/Deaf, which is why deaf actors are rarely invited to film. As a consequence—deaf actors do not acquire enough experience in film. Film and series production is structured in such a way that it is necessary to master and film material in a short time, and for guaranteed results, professionalism and so-called “self-direction” are required, and far from every deaf actor has these. Along with the organicity of the actor, this is the foundation without which nothing can be built. Besides, the professions of film and theatre acting are different forms and means of existence. A Deaf theatre actor will not always be organic in film, reworking is required, which means there is nothing surprising in the fact that hearing producers and directors primarily choose hearing actors for main roles.
Country of the Deaf, Chapiteau-Show, The Tribe—three completely different films that resounded widely in Russia and firmly claimed their place in cinematography. These are stories (in particular about the deaf) were told by hearing people with different intonations—sometimes with curiosity and friendliness, sometimes from a detached perspective. It did not seem important to all of them to learn sign language in order to collaborate directly: “wider” society created memorable images that can be related to differently (these stories would perhaps have had absolutely different intonations had Deaf people participated in their creation). All that remains is to hope that a strong artistic environment will appear in the community, thanks to which deaf people will be able to shoot similar films about themselves and release them into the wider world.
Why? So that the d/Deaf might speak in their own voice.