The film starts in virtual silence. There is no music or dialogue, and the only sound we hear is some faint background noise. We see four people standing before some music stands and gesturing at each other in sign language. From the opening moments of Le pays des sourds (In the Land of the Deaf) we get the sense of another world, and perhaps some idea of what it is like to be deaf. Later, we hear sounds of voices coming from an open window and we are taken into a school room that contains a class of young children, anticipating director Nicolas Philibert’s 2002 film Être et avoir (To Be and to Have). We see children with hearing aids being taught to articulate sounds, with their utterances represented by various pictures on a computer screen, giving them (and us) a visual correlation to the sound. There is no interviewer or voiceover to explain what is going on, nor any explanatory text or graphics (with the exception of subtitles) to set the scene for us. Like fellow documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, Philibert simply deposits us in this world without offering the standard (and arguably overused) tools to guide us through the film. Instead, the film lets us gradually absorb and accumulate details. This is a film full of expressive faces and gestures, particularly from the children, where we focus on every movement. Very soon, we start to piece things together, and before we know it, this remarkable film has subtly introduced a series of characters and stories for us to follow.
Interspersed with these moments of observational documentary are testimonies to camera from various people, who outline their background and share their experiences as deaf people. This is the closest the film gets to directly addressing us, and these testimonies are frank and often very surprising. One man tells how he would prefer to use sign language and experience the world in silence than wear hearing aids, because the hearing aids, rather than opening his life up to a world of sound, drown him in a cacophony of noise, such as chairs scraping on a floor and chalk screeching on a blackboard. Another person, a bearded deaf teacher who is seen regularly throughout the film, tells a group of people how, as a child, he learnt signing by watching people, which, in a sense, is what we have to attempt here. We will not learn the intricacies of sign language during the film, of course, but we may get a sense of how complex this language is, and how much detail and nuance is involved when communicating in the world of the deaf.
The teacher also mentions the visual sense of deaf people, a kind of heightened awareness of what is seen, which makes their visual perception more acute than a hearing person. This teacher later informs us that each country has its own sign language and that, while there are differences, communication between deaf people from different countries is easier for the deaf (as opposed to the difficulties in communication encountered by hearing people who speak different languages), with the world far more open to them. And there is also the ritual of name signs for newborn deaf babies, which is chosen to reflect a unique characteristic of an individual. All of these elements make the land of the deaf a distinctive place, but the film also stresses how much the deaf community is a part of the hearing world, being similar in a number of ways.
A number of testimonies also hint at the solitary nature of deafness, at least in early life, before deaf people meet other deaf people. We also understand how deaf individuals are made to feel part of a group by expressing themselves and interacting with others. This helps us to understand what the teachers of the children are trying to do in the scenes set at the school. The teachers initially seem very strict when instructing the children, but we come to learn that by pushing the children to try harder to converse, the teachers are ensuring that the youngsters are not cocooned from the rest of the world or cut off from communicating with others. The testimonies, and other details, are often shown in long take, giving the people in the film a generous amount of time to express themselves as fully as possible. And even when testimonies are not being given, the camera catches fascinating, unguarded moments. For example, one sequence shows a young child named Florent (an expressive boy who almost steals the film) talking with his mother. After a few moments, Florent turns his attention to the camera and film crew, and eventually grabs the boom microphone to speak into it, as if he was learning to speak in the classroom.
We follow different generations of deaf people throughout the film, from infants at home with their families to children in school with their teachers, and from young adults visiting iconic locations in Paris to older people playing cards. Along with all these age groups, various races and religions are represented in the film as well. While all these disparate groups are related by their deafness, they are also connected to each other, and to hearing people, through common human experiences. We see deaf people at home and at work, we follow children through school, and we see a young couple go from their marriage ceremony and celebrations to the birth of their child, all of which are events that everybody can relate to in some way. In the Land of the Deaf shows that life, with its ups and downs, its ceremonies and rituals, its institutions and businesses, is what unites diverse people, whether they are deaf or hearing. On the one hand, the land of the deaf is a separate realm, but on the other, it is linked to the land of the hearing, with the point being that everyone is related by his or her shared experiences. This point may seem obvious when written so straightforwardly here, but Philibert’s skilful handling of the material in this film is a potent and poetic reminder of this important fact (1).
- Sources utilised for this article include: Nicolas Philibert, “In the Land of the Deaf”, Nicolas Philibert: http://www.nicolasphilibert.fr/; and Maxine Barker, Documentary in the Digital Age, Focal Press, Oxford, 2006.
Le pays des sourds/In the Land of the Deaf (1992 France 99 mins)
Prod Co: Les Films d’Ici/La Sept-cinéma/The Rhone-Alpes European Cinematographic Centre in association with Canal +/The Rhone-Alpes Region/The Centre National de la Cinématographie/The Fondation de France/The Ministry of Foreign Affairs/RAI TRE/BBC Television/Télévision Suisse Romande Prod: Serge Lalou Dir: Nicolas Philibert Phot: Frédéric Labourasse Ed: Guy Lecorne