In the Land of the Deaf, 1992

A quartet of deaf musicians rehearsing in a studio provides an appropriately lyrical and enchanting prelude to In the Land of the Deaf as they interpret an orchestral arrangement through a series of sweeping, rhythmic cadence: at times, in interacting and overlapping ‘instrumental’ solos, and at other points, in unison, as the articulated symphony intensifies to a sublime crescendo. The confluence of what would seem innately disparate and irreconcilable to a hearing person provides a compelling demystification against society’s perceived limitations of the deaf – particularly in the field of performance art – as a deaf stage actor who performs in pantomime subsequently recounts a disillusioning childhood conversation with a film director who had dissuaded him from becoming a motion picture actor, insisting that the ability to hear was a requirement for proper acting. The nuanced expressivity of the artists is further reflected in a non-speaking professor, Jean-Claude Poulain’s (French) sign language workshop to a class composed primarily of parents of deaf children, illustrating several distinct signs to indicate the motion of walking, based on the performer of action: an alternating sweeping of the index fingers for a human; a quick, alternating sweeping of the index and middle fingers for a dog (accompanied by a docile, facial expression); a slow, alternating hammering of a closed fist with the knuckles pointing downward (accompanied by pulsed exhalation through a closed mouth) to indicate the plodding gait of an elephant. In another vignette, a young, deaf mechanic named Hubert Poncet is shown at his worksite lip-reading verbal instructions from his supervisor and later dressing for his wedding (as the young man practices the awkward continuous motion of doffing his top hat before taking his bride’s arm) to Marie-Hélène Poncet, before revisiting the young deaf couple on several slice-of-life moments of their new life together.

Filmed in quietly observed, verite-styled naturalism, In the Land of the Deaf is an elegantly spare, sensorially immersive, and thoughtful portrait of rich and diverse, but often isolated culture of the deaf community. Through the presentation of well-adjusted deaf adults in their careers and personal lives, and the economic, communicative precision with which Poulain is able to articulate solely through sign language, Nicolas Philibert provides a incisive and provocative corollary to the images of Babette Deboissy’s elementary class as the stern, but dedicated teacher develops her students’ speech and oral recognition skills through rigorously repetitive exercises using an auxiliary device that emits modulated frequencies based on external noise response. However, as a young man subsequently reveals his profound distress at the bombardment of the auditory synthesizers generated by the hearing aids to the point that he defied the teachers and refused to wear them, the film presents a privileged and insightful commentary on the essential dilemma of conformity: Is the quality of human experience defined by a semblance of one’s ability to hear?

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