A SOUND PREMISE
True to its title, French director Nicolas Philibert's documentary In the Land of the Deaf approaches deafness not as a handicap but as the unifying condition of a subculture. It's a very simple, unaffected piece of filmmaking, smoothly intercutting several unconnected strands of narrative--the marriage of two young people, a class of grade-school kids, actors in a sign-language theatre and others--to show that the deaf experience is less like an impairment and more like the perspective of a nationality.
Because Philibert's approach is that of a captivated outsider--almost like a cultural anthropologist visiting a tribe--the film has a fresh, exploratory feel. When interview subjects who grew up in hearing families discuss the isolation they felt as kids, there's no sense of censure toward the hearing world. They're just recounting a poignant and painful, but unavoidable, fact of their lives. The poignancy is always a prelude to relief at discovering the company of other deaf people. Philibert is just observing, he isn't building a case against anything except condescension toward sign as a viable language (or rather, a family of languages). After seeing In the Land of the Deaf, which is largely in French sign, it would be hard for anyone to suppose that sign is merely a poor substitute for speaking.
If In the Land of the Deaf has a "star," it's Jean-Claude Poulain, a marvelous sign-language teacher with the mimetic gifts of a first-rate actor. In the deaf world, he's an orator, a raconteur and a standup comedian, and in the film he takes on the role of guide and interpreter. Poulain talks about the ease with which the different "dialects" of sign are picked across national lines, compared to the difficulty with which hearing people learn new tongues. This is reflected in one of Philibert's strands, in which he shows some American deaf students visiting Paris bond with some of his Parisian interview subjects. Later in the film, Poulain bluntly describes the disappointment he felt when he learned that his newborn daughter could hear--he thought sharing deafness would make communication between them easier. "I love her anyway," he shrugs, almost pityingly, as if it were she who was handicapped. Looking at this princely man, and at the other people of Philibert's film, it's clear that they're the children of a not remotely lesser God.
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