In the Land of the Deaf
Le Pays des sourds
Director: Nicolas Philibert
Running time: 99 minsFrance
Production co: Les Films d'Ici/La Sept/Centre Europeen
Producer: Serge Lalou
Photography: Frederic Labourasse
Editor: Guy Lecorne
Sound: Henri Maikoff
Sign Language Teacher: Jean-Claude Poulain
Children: Aboubaker, Anh Tuan, Betty, Florent, Frederic, Jalal, Karen, Tomo
Teacher: Odile Ghermani
Instructor: Babette Deboissy
Principal: Denis Azra
Wedding Couple: Hubert Poncet, Marie-Helene Poncet
Festivals: Vancouver 1993; Sydney, 1994
“One day, we will have to get rid of the idea that only verbal language can articulate thoughts. The deafest people are not always those whom we think they are. It's true that for a novice, signs seem like a kind of mime show. The fact that we are able to `identify' some of them quickly gives us the feeling that we will be able to understand everything, but although they appear easy to interpret at first, these signs soon become extraordinarily complex.
“‘The idea that sign language is easy is definitely an illusion’, [Oliver] Sacks adds, ‘and what seem to be so basic actually consists of several spatial configurations which are fitted together in three dimensions... the sign languages, in all their aspects - lexical, grammatical or syntaxic – open the door to a linguistic use of space: a use which is surprisingly complex because nearly all that is happening on a linear, sequential and temporal basis in spoken language becomes, in sign language, simultaneous, juxtaposed and multi-stratified.’
“Since the end of the fifties, following the initiative of the young American linguist William Stokoe, numerous researchers have turned to studying this fantastic grammatical space and they discovered amongst other things that every sign was determined by five parameters: configuration, direction, location, the movement of the hand and the facial expression. In order to indicate, for instance, that I am not deaf, I would have to stick up my index finger and my middle finger with the other ones down, as if making a V sign (configuration), both fingers pointing upwards with my palm facing me (direction), placing the middle finger next to my ear (location) and with a rapid circular movement, touch my ear lightly with my extended middle finger (movement) with a light raising of my eye brows (facial expression). In contrast, if my interlocutor wants to tell me that he is deaf, he just has to extend the index finger with the hand closed and to bring it up to the ear lobe and with a brisk movement to bring it down to the lips. Then, his facial expression will depend on the intention that he wants to give to this information, because by changing one of these parameters, we can change the whole meaning of a sign.
“In French sign language, your hand can make 35 different shapes: a flat hand, a grasping hand, a cone shaped hand, a straight closed hand with a thumb sticking up, a beak shaped hand, a pincer shaped hand, a hooked hand... There are also a number of important ways of pointing your hand and your arm: pointing your palm toward yourself, downwards, upwards, slantwise, the arm down by your side, at an angle, horizontally, bent backwards, bent forwards... The location of the signs are just as varied: on the mouth, next to the eyes, at chest height, in front of the torso, below the waist, on the shoulder... Regarding the facial expressions which are also codified, they are not playing a supporting role, as I thought they were, of trying to emphasize the sense of a discussion.
“During the shooting, I realized myself the importance of their grammatical functions when, following an impulse, I suddenly closed up the frame just focusing on a character's hand. It was a big mistake because not only did I deprive him, without his knowledge, of a part of the needed space for his expression, but I found it impossible to interpret what he was saying...
“Signs don't constitute a static succession of paralysed symbols. They rather work by the combination in space of simultaneous movements overlapping each other in a dynamic rhythm based on accelerations, slowing down and breaks. It is in this way then, more than through their iconical dimension, that the signs evoke the idea of an edited film and not so much the idea of a written narration.
“But what about the director who dreams of exploring this remote land of sign language, of immersing himself in it a little bit more every day, of understanding little by little the customs, the culture, the language, creating ties with the inhabitants and, by involving the audience, making it view the world through their eyes? How do you approach this land without realising that the laws of perception are so foreign to our own that you will have to abandon as quickly as possible your smallest preconceptions?
“Filming deaf people suddenly dictates unavoidable rules which will have to be strictly followed by the cameraman, more than by the sound recorder. As I said before, the space of the person who uses signs was, is this frame that extends vertically from the head to the waist and laterally from one elbow to the other one with arms stretched out.
“But as well as having this constraint with regard to the frame in which you have filmed, there is also another constraint concerning the cutting of the film: where an oral language allows constantly a cut-away (thanks to that, the director will be able to film as he wants whatever character of a single scene, the one who is speaking or the one who is listening), the sign language forces the director to never miss out a single sign – otherwise he will lose the meaning. We will face again this constraint during the editing because the use of the edit cut seems to be impossible as it would imply a non-existent concomitance between two shots or two actions” — Nicolas Philibert, translated by Marie-Laure Jautet
“Go see this film, leave your pity behind. You will enter a whirlwind of energy, optimism, purity, tenderness and moral and intellectual finesse which we all have a lot to learn from. Thrilling.” — Le Figaro