The last time I went to the cinema was to watch Skyfall.
Not a lot of people know this, but I watched it on the day that I was supposed to be going under the knife for my bionic ear. That morning, the roof of the operating theatre developed a leak, so my wife and I decided to go to the movies instead.
Skyfall was the last film I ever watched in a cinema with hearing aids. I was in an operating theatre having unspeakable things done to my skull a couple of days later.
Fast forward six months, and I’m a guest of the Edinburgh Film Festival and 104 Films. I’ve got a tray of extra large nachos on my lap, and I’m watching director Matt Hulse introduce a film that he’s spent 12 years working on. That film is Dummy Jim.
The process of making Dummy Jim started in 2001 when Matt’s mum sent him a tiny hardback book in the post – I Cycled to the Arctic Circle, by James Duthie. He showed it to deaf filmmaker and actor Samuel Dore, and so began a long and arduous process of fundraising, workshops, development and more.
In the hands of an ordinary filmmaker, Dummy Jim would be a road movie following a deaf man on his bicycle, and the trials and tribulations that ensue. But Matt Hulse is no ordinary filmmaker – he’s a craftsman who likes to explore film as an artistic, rather than storytelling medium.
Dummy Jim in other words, is arthouse. It’s so arthouse, that after 20 minutes I thought about sneaking out early. It mixes drama, documentary and found footage as well as its own ‘making of’ documentary, with Sam wandering around the set before filming starts; James Duthie’s own home videos; a sequence of a large granite block being cut in a stonemason’s workshop, an animator creating the title sequence and more.
What kept me watching was the sound. Matt worked with Technicolor to create a deaf friendly sound mix, with all the sounds low down in the mix, making it easier for deaf people to hear and feel atmospheric sounds as well as the music. That sound mix kept me rooted to my seat. It sounded amazing through my new implant – and I could feel it too, through the cinema seat.
Sam is the star of the film, and even though I know him well in real life, after twenty minutes I forgot that it was Sam, and instead thought of him as James Duthie. The sequence where Sam records his own voiceover for Dummy Jim were particularly emotive for me. It was the first time, ever, that I recognised the difference between a hearing voice and a deaf voice. Sam’s voice was still rich, resonant, and moving – but deaf. I liked that they embraced it and didn’t shy away from it. That was Matt trusting his instincts as a filmmaker – and they were the right ones.
As the film went on all the different, seemingly disparate images and strands of the film started to weave together ever more tightly – until they formed a beautiful, satisfying whole. Dummy Jim‘s a film about community, personal history, the past, the power of memory and more besides.
I REALLY enjoyed it.
But there’s no escaping the fact that it’s an arthouse movie which will mostly be appreciated by people who are literate in film theory and film technique. It was all the more ironic that I watched it at the multi screen Cineworld multiplex, where Man of Steel and Despicable Me 2 are playing on a loop.
Dummy Jim is great, I’m first in line to buy the DVD… but I wouldn’t show it in my local deaf club. I can’t help feeling that we’re still waiting for the next big breakthrough in British Deaf filmmaking – the first commercially profitable feature film to star a deaf lead, made by a deaf director.
I’ve been spending a lot of time with deaf filmmakers recently – Ted Evans, Bim Ajadi and William Horsefield, a prodigy who’s only 18, but has already made 50 effects-laden short films using his laptop and Sony Handycam. They all had interesting, opposing views about what the future of deaf filmmaking is.
They all agreed that as a whole, it’s time to move on from making zero budget shorts and 24 minute dramas for the Community Channel, and start thinking about the first deaf feature. But what form should that deaf feature film take? Should it be an all deaf, all signing cast? Or should it be something that’s about deafness but not in an obvious way?
I’ll tell you why I think we need a deaf feature film. Cinema is a way of communicating ideas, themes, emotions to a huge audience. If done right, a deaf feature film could be a huge breakthrough, a lasting monument to the deaf community and to deaf culture. This is something we should strive for.
Ted Evans in a recent interview said he thinks of Deaf Cinema as a form of World Cinema – with its own culture and language. Unfortunately, I don’t fully agree. Yes, World Cinema has subtitles. It’s in a language that audiences don’t fully understand. But it still has the spoken, audible word – with its own intonation, cadence, rhythm. The human voice will draw in audiences, and what mainstream audiences hear is more important than what they see. Will people who flocked to see The Secret in Their Eyes or Tell No One come to watch a feature film where all the dialogue is signed?
Different directors solve that in different ways – through mixing deaf and hearing characters, using voiceover, introducing a bit of magic realism here and there… but audiences have their own views about what works and what doesn’t.
I’ve been given money to write first drafts of two feature film ideas, both featuring deafness. I’m finding them both exciting to write. I can see them playing in my head as I write. I can see who the actors are, and how the film looks. At the same time I’m wondering, realistically, how much money they would make in cinemas. What budget level would I need to produce them at in order to make my money back? Which countries would buy them? Would I be limited to the UK only? What, where, why, how.
I was thinking about all of this on the train home from Edinburgh, flushed with inspiration and excitement. To relax, I watched a film on my laptop called Silver Linings Playbook. That film is about two people with severe mental health issues who find one another. In the hands of the wrong director it would be a bad taste comedy, or a disease of the week TV movie. In the hands of writer-director David O. Russell, it became a masterpiece of a romantic comedy that explores mental illness in a semi serious way, through two amazing lead performances from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.
There was a moment in the film that just struck a nerve with me. I started crying on the five hour train journey back to London, to the annoyance of the elderly couple and their dog sat next to me. But I didn’t care. I was immersed in the lives of two people, one with bipolar disorder and one with sex addiction. The film pulled a trick on me and made me empathise with two unlikeable characters with problems I’ve never really experienced. That’s a great trick.
Perhaps deaf filmmakers should take the Silver Linings Playbook route, and find a surprising, offbeat way of exploring deafness that will attract new audiences.
Anyway – watch Dummy Jim at the East End Film Festival this Saturday 6th July at 3.30pm. Then rent or buy Silver Linings Playbook. Tell me what you liked about the films or didn’t like about them.
I’m genuinely interested to know.