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Film Notes: Cinema for the Deaf spells it out

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At a pivotal point in the movie What Women Want, Mel Gibson sees two deaf women in a shopping mall conversing in sign language. Gibson, whose character has the unwanted ability to read women's minds, sees the women flashing signs and hears female voices translating.

"But it sounds like a hearing person's voice," says Chicago actress Liz Tannebaum, one of the signing women. "So in my mind I must think like a hearing person."

The scene lasts about 15 seconds but Tannebaum was on the set that day for 18 hours. Most of that time was spent in a tug-of-war over the need for a sign-language interpreter so the actresses could communicate with the director and others. No one seemed anxious to hire one, Tannebaum says. "They said they couldn't afford it. So I said, if they won't cooperate with me, I won't perform. The other deaf girl and I are sitting in the trailer. They kept knocking. 'Would you do this? Would you do this?' We said, 'Is there an interpreter?' They walked out. I asked for an interpreter maybe 100 times and one showed up maybe 15 hours later."

With the interpreter present, Tannebaum says, shooting the scene took about 30 minutes.

Around the same time--September 2000--amateur filmmaker and former high school English teacher Joshua Flanders founded the Chicago Institute for the Moving Image. A key part of the nonprofit organization's mission was to provide a home for "outsider cinema," which Flanders characterizes as work "made outside of Hollywood or by people who haven't had a chance to show their movies."

Flanders didn't know much about deafness until just before he launched CIMI, when he joined Congregation Bene Shalom, a Skokie synagogue attended by many deaf people where all services and ceremonies are translated into American Sign Language. He became enamored of the close-knit community and the beauty of ASL, and got the idea that a deaf film festival would be a great project for his organization. The synagogue's rabbi told him he knew a deaf woman who had always had the same dream, and put him in touch with Tannebaum.

When Flanders contacted her, she was still frustrated from her moviemaking experience, which had taught her that trying to act in a film could be as difficult for a deaf person as trying to go to one. When she was young, there were no captioned movies at all; even now only a few theaters show such films, and they screen them at off-peak times. Says Tannebaum, "Who wants to go on a date at three in the afternoon?"

So she took a hiatus from acting to travel with Flanders around the U.S. and Europe rounding up films for the nation's largest-ever festival of cinema for the deaf, which opens February 28. Thirty films from around the world, almost all by deaf filmmakers or featuring deaf actors, will be shown. In The Ride, a 25-minute American film, a hearing man picks up a deaf hitchhiker who might be an angel. Journey of the Deaf, from Israel, takes place mostly in Cuba as two deaf men vacation there. Monsters, Inc. and A Beautiful Mind will also be shown. All the films will be captioned using a new projection technology developed by Digital Theater Systems that allows for instant on-screen captioning and simultaneous subtitles in multiple languages. There will also be plenty of roving interpreters so hearing people and those who don't know ASL won't be left out of panel discussions and conversations.

When the festival is over, Tannebaum and Flanders say they intend to find a permanent home for CIMI. By day they want to offer filmmaking classes and conduct research on the mental and physical effects of watching movies. By night they hope to show captioned movies in many languages using the DTS projector. Flanders wagers that not just the deaf and hard-of-hearing will come. "Thousands of Latino people in Chicago can't go to the movies either because they can't understand English," he notes. "The only way this captioning device will sell," says Flanders, "is if other theaters see there is a theater that's doing well and taking away their business."

The Festival of Cinema for the Deaf runs from February 28 through March 4 at various locations. Opening night passes are $50 and include a 6 PM reception at the Claridge Hotel (1244 N. Dearborn), the 7:30 film program at Pipers Alley (210 W. North), and a postshow reception at Dinotto Ristorante (215 W. North). Tickets to the opening night screening alone are $10; all other screenings are $5 (and Monsters, Inc. is free to kids 12 and under). For complete schedule information go to www.cinemaforthedeaf.org; call 847-922-0767 (voice) or 847-478-1547 (TTY); or see the film listings in Section Two.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Petty.

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