Last night, I found myself sitting in what looks like any normal high school gym. Folding chairs are set-up, a projector screen hangs, and various folks pile in as the community movie is about to begin. The only thing that would tip you off to the difference of this gym and this community is a banner in the corner of the gym that reads, “RI School of the Deaf.” For those that don’t know, my parents are deaf and that has led to my driving need to understand oppression and to understand my own place in the dynamic of oppressor/oppressed.
The movie I was seeing was called, “Deaf Club”, and was created entirely by folks in the deaf community. The film has no sound and all the actors speak in American Sign Language with captions for those that don’t know ASL It was important to my father that I see the film as it is a good representation of deaf culture.
The purpose of “Deaf Club” was to promote awareness about Deaf Clubs. Most of the film’s crew and actors are non-professionals so it has a very fun/improvised feel to it. Looking past lack of lighting, make-up, etc the film promotes a very positive image of a community of people bound by their disability and helping each other. While not a good film by any stretch, I did leave with a smile on my face and almost immediately after the film ended, I was reminded about my mix feelings about the Ukrainian film, “The Tribe”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tribe_(2014_film).
“The Tribe” (2014) won quite a few awards and was the talk of the town for a little. Similarly to “Deaf Club”, the film feature no spoken dialogue and is told all through sign language; HOWEVER, the film features a great sound mix. It also chooses not to have any subtitles. The film focuses on a deaf school in the Ukraine and the students’ descent into drugs, prostitution, and malicious violence against each other. While an incredibly well-made film and achievement in film-making, I couldn’t help, but feeling dirty after seeing it.
“The Tribe” (2014) had turned deaf people into monsters to be gawked at rather than as people we understand and relate to. The lack of subtitles serves more to play to the viewer’s ignorance than to show us deaf culture. Is there not something exploitative in having fully explicit sex scenes of two deaf people where half of our interest is in the sound they are making? My chief criticism against “The Tribe” is that it’s exploiting the deaf in that its “look this is a movie about the DEAF” and then pushes the incredibly negative stereotypes that have serve to keep the deaf and hearing worlds separate.
“Deaf Club” will never be a wide-release popular film for at its best it’s amateurish and at its worst it’s just plain bad. While “The Tribe” is an incredibly shot film that shows amazing technical prowess in all its different facets of film-making. My point isn’t to say that one film deserves more than the other, but rather to shine a light on a sad history of films that show minority groups in a negative light profit greatly.
When I saw “The Tribe” a few months ago, I remember hearing folks tensing up when I gave my rather pointed criticism. Immediately, folks would defend the film and highlight how I’m being unfair to the film. It became apparent that these hearing people didn’t know any deaf people so since they thought the film was authentic, they needed to defend or else it’d be a reflection on them. This is how oppression and negative imagery in the media becomes autonomous. The irony though is that I liked “The Tribe” a great deal, but I would just like to have the discussion. And that’s the problem. People need things in black and white. Either it is exploitative or it isn’t.
People often ask me since I’m a writer, “Why aren’t you writing about deaf people!” As if it’s some unmined gold mine. The reason is that I don’t see deaf people as different from me. They are people. Obviously, there are aspects of their disability that dictate how their lives have been shaped, etc, but the deaf people I know are like everyone else. The “deaf stories” these people are referencing are not the “deaf stories” that I would tell.
My main criticism of the “The Tribe” is that it’s selling the idea of “the other.” It’s selling the age-old theme of look how awful it is to be “the non-disabled white male.” The principle attraction of “The Tribes” is… look at this fucked up subsection of humanity because they can’t hear. IT’S SO AUTHENTIC. When in fact the only thing with certainty that we can say is authentic is the need of hearing people to believe that the deaf are savages. This can be apply to every minority group and media representations.
Media representations becomes so important because in the homogenous areas of this country that’s all they have to base their knowledge of a minority group on. How many times have we all suffered through the well-meaning story about racism written by a white individual with no real contact with whatever community he or she is writing about? And so to bring this back to my original point, my thoughts are not to condemn of “The Tribe” and to put on a pedestal a low-budget community film, but rather to highlight how oppression works and how its tied to capitalism. At the end of the day, this all becomes about money. Art dies because we need to make products that sell and part of that is by giving the people what they want, which is to have their own stereotypes/opinions validated.
Oppression is a two-way street. We can complain that the producers of media are feeding oppressive imagery to the masses, but what are we doing as consumers to change that? When you look on facebook and look at your social network is it diverse? Because if it is, I guarantee you’ll be alerted to diverse art made people from all walks of life. When you look at what you’re watching on TV is it the 20th Fast and the Furious movie? Or is it something challenging your prospective? At the end of the day, I can be railing against content creators, but we as consumers have to make the change.