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La Famille Bélier: how not to do a movie with Deaf characters

2014-12-24

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This article’s aim is to offer more of an in-depth analysis on the issues surrounding the movie “La Famille Bélier”, following my first article. If you would like to read my review of the movie itself, you can go there.

Following my first article a few days ago, I went to see “La Famille Bélier”. In the meantime, new articles (besides the ones that were already up when I wrote mine) started popping up about the movie and criticising it for the same reasons I did.

On the other hand, an overwhelming amount of articles praised the movie, either unaware of the context or brushing it off partially or entirely. Rebecca Atkinson’s article for The Guardian has even been commented on as being “French bashing”, and several consider she is being severe and harsh. Articles in French: TF1, Le Figaro, 20minutes, Actu-mag or Premiere.fr for examples of articles that picked up on her critique. I quite like how many newspapers managed to make an article out of thin air by simply quoting from Rebecca Atkinson’s and adding a couple of sentences to the effect of “the British are being mean to us, boohoo”.

I decided to write more about the topic because I feel that news outlets and members of the public are misunderstanding widely what is wrong with “La Famille Bélier” and I think there is a lot more to say about it. This is important because this movie will not disappear and has been bought internationally already.

Rebecca Atkinson is considered too harsh and she’s British so her opinion is seen as not counting anyway. As for French Deaf people, the opinion I’ve seen most widely shared is that of Viguen Shirvanian’s, who works in the cinema industry. His interview (Fr) praises the movie while acknowledging its flaws. It’s quite measured in a way and tries not to lean too much one way or another. While this may well be exactly what he genuinely thinks, I doubt he would want to be too critical as it could cause him problems in his job so we can’t really know. As for the French Deaf people who are not happy about the movie, such as Yann Cantin? They are labelled as “radicals”, “a minority”, and remain largely nameless (Emmanuelle Laborit (Fr) did get cited saying that the hearing actors “sign like pigs”).

I’m not sure what I am in the middle of this: I am hearing, I’m French, and I write from the perspective of a PhD student in Deaf Studies. But I’ve gotten slightly obsessed over this in the past few days and I have to write this down.

So, about that whole access thing…?

While it isn’t possible to really compare “La Famille Bélier” and “Marie Heurtin” as they have such different topics and such different aims, it IS possible to compare them regarding accessibility and I did a little bit of research on this.

Note: top 3 cinema companies operating in France are Gaumont & Pathé (73 cinemas), CGR (44 cinemas) and UGC (37 cinemas). MK2 is also quite important in Paris alone (11 cinemas). There are also several smaller operating companies. Then you have independent cinemas (that wouldn't typically be showing big bankable movies, though. Marie Heurtin was widely shown in such cinemas).

Because everyone likes some numbers. I counted there are 39 subtitled viewings of the movie in the whole of Paris, taking all cinemas into account, from 17.12.2014 to 24.12.201 (first week the movie was out). That includes one preview showing. For comparison, the cinemas Gaumont & Pathé ALONE have 43 viewings of the movie each day in Paris (they are only showing the subtitled version on the Thursday & Saturday, so on these days 38 viewings are in French only and 5 in French with subtitles).

For UGC cinemas, in the whole of France, I counted that 34 cinemas are showing the movie 203 separate times each day. Nothing is subtitled on the weekend, but 29 of these cinemas are showing the film subtitled once on the Friday and the Tuesday of that oh so important first week. That means they are showing the movie 1,363 times without subtitles, and 58 times with subtitles. Let that sink in. Considering the numbers shown on CinéST (Fr), a great website which collates information on subtitled movies, I wouldn't expect any significant differences for other cinema operating companies.

Éric Lartigau has talked about the preview showings that were subtitled for Deaf and HOH people. Let’s have a look at the numbers (Fr). We can see there were 8 subtitled preview showings with the team, and 19 non-subtitled ones. The page also gives preview showings where the team wasn’t present and the movie was subtitled but I can’t compare that as I don’t know how many non-subtitled preview showings there were without the team present. It is not specified whether live subtitles/interpreters were in attendance at the subtitled preview showings, which are followed by a discussion with the team. Bonus video: enjoy some Luca Gelberg in LSF (no spoken French, no subtitles) advertising these. I like Luca Gelberg.

All that to say: yes, I very much needed my hearing privilege for this viewing since I saw the movie on a Monday morning. Comparing and looking at the viewings that are subtitled, it seems Deaf people just go to the movies sometime between 13.00 and 15.00, overall. For Marie Heurtin, doing the maths is much easier. All viewings were subtitled, no exception.

Hearing actors: so what?

Why it’s a problem.

Ah, the whole “the parents are hearing actors” issue. It seems very few people actually agree that it is a problem.

Hearing people on the forefront using substandard sign language to do things such as sign songs are a well-known issue. Just this past summer, we had Paul and Tina signing along in their car in American Sign Language and using their new fame to try and raise money so they could teach ASL to other people. Recently, a discussion thread popped up on my Facebook where an ASL teacher complained they couldn’t find genuine examples of Deaf people signing on Youtube to help their Deaf students because it was overtaken by low-quality signing by learners of ASL. And don’t get me started on Kristin Henson and her “ASL” “dictionary” of “ASL” insults.

To put it simply, and as Deafwordsmith remarks, this is cultural appropriation. That’s all.

Maybe there were no Deaf actors?

For starters, if there were no Deaf actors to play these roles, then one should ask themselves: why is that? Secondly, the movie director Éric Lartigau has readily explained (Fr, p.5) that he never even looked for Deaf actors. He had wanted to work with François Damiens and Karin Viard for a while and wanted them to be in the movie from the first time he read the script. From this on, any explanation as to why the parents are not Deaf actors is an afterthought, an explanation he came up with knowing he would be asked about it.

What if they did it well?

Let’s pretend for a second that having hearing actors to play Deaf characters is ok. Why not have a look at the process by which these hearing actors became competent enough in LSF to be able to play in a movie where their only language was LSF (for Karin Viard and François Damiens, the parents), or a language they were going to use widely (Louane Emera, the hearing daughter).

Louane Emera and Karin Viard were taught by Alexeï Coïca, who is Deaf and an LSF teacher. François Damiens was taught by Fabienne Leunis. It has been reported several times that they had intensive classes, 4 to 5 hours a day, where they learnt the basics of LSF and then started learning their lines. Sometimes they say these classes happened for 4 months, sometimes 6, so I’m not sure.

François Damiens has admitted he underestimated the work at the start, and Éric Lartigau even had to call him (Fr) while he was at sea on his boat because he was worried François was not taking his preparation seriously enough.

As for Karin Viard, she said in an interview (spoken Fr only) that they had to change some signs because she was struggling too much to do them and “lacked dexterity”. In that same interview, she talks about “having to string together some 80 signs in a row”, which sounds somewhat oblivious to structure and grammar and presents LSF as a bunch of signs done one after the other.

I’ve not found that much about Louane Emera’s preparation, other than her being praised because “her job on the movie was harder”. Indeed, she had to speak and sign at the same time. News flash: she wouldn’t have had such a hard job if they had decided to do this differently. It does happen that people speak and sign at the same time, but I’d like to know how many people would speak and sign at the same time while surrounded by Deaf people only, and how many people would also rephrase out loud everything a person is saying before answering (the LSF was only subtitled in specific moments in the movie and for a specific purpose, and a lot of the time we see Paula saying for example “you’re saying that […]?” out loud before answering).

While filming, Alexeï Coïca and Jennifer Tederri (an interpreter) told Éric Lartigau whether the actors’ signing was good before moving on to the next scene. I would try a guess that it was more of a “yes, the signing is good for someone who has had only a limited and finite amount of time to learn LSF and this is as good as it’ll get within our time constraint” considering that Deaf people have been reported to need subtitles to understand it, besides those who have commented on the bad quality of the LSF presented overall.

What would have been the benefits of hiring Deaf actors?

If Deaf actors had been casted, we would have had several benefits, besides the obvious "it would have been the right thing to do, full stop". To begin with, the LSF would have been of top quality.

Éric Lartigau has said in a discussion about the movie with members of the public (Fr, no subtitles, no LSF) that he “didn’t want to tell a Deaf story, but show that the integration of Deaf people within society is difficult and a pain”. I’m so confused at that statement I can’t even. I’ll just address one bit: there are Deaf people in the story. Therefore it is a story about people who are Deaf (and parents, and farmers, and whatever else they are).

Let’s talk numbers. I like numbers. Because I got slightly obsessed about all this, I collated some data while I was watching “Marie Heurtin” and “La Famille Bélier”. Of course, these are to be taken with a pinch of salt because I couldn’t pause the movie and think too hard since I only have one brain and an app with 4 timers maximum. Yes, that’s right. I timed things during the movies.

La Famille Bélier (1 hour 45) Marie Heurtin (1 hour 35)
LSF on screen 27 min 17 sec
(Karin Viard (H), François Damiens (H), Louane Emera (H), Luca Gelberg (D), Bruno Gomila (D))
15 min 7 sec
(Ariana Rivoire (D), Noémie Churlet (D), Isabelle Carré (H))
Deaf parents on screen (while signing or not) 35 min 33 sec
(Karin Viard (H), François Damiens (H))
N/A
Deaf actors on screen (while signing or not) 16 min 28 sec
(Luca Gelberg, Bruno Gomila)
1 hour 8 minutes
(Ariana Rivoire, Noémie Churlet)

As you can see, for a movie that’s “not a Deaf story”, Deaf characters do get a whole lot of screen time! Too bad only a third of this time is with an actual Deaf actor who sadly doesn’t have a huge amount of lines (a lot of it was Luca/Quentin being “there” without necessarily taking a huge part in the scene). Having Deaf actors would have given Deaf actors that much screen time! Considering how much Joël Chalude (Fr) struggled to get his movie out there, it would have been pretty darn amazing.

The promise of awareness.

Some people have argued that “the promise of awareness” should be enough for this whole movie to be seen as acceptable. Therefore, I thought we’d have a look at the topic of awareness or lack thereof… I had to limit myself here because I could have given a never-ending list of examples.

The movie director’s awareness (Éric Lartigau).

Sources: interview (Fr) and discussion with the public (Fr only, no subtitles or LSF).

“I want to show that our differences are unremarkable, we must stop noting our differences” (said with an irritated voice). This is an easy statement to make when you are yourself full of privilege (which he doesn’t seem to be checking very often). This reminds me of this post by autistic advocate Lydia Brown about the term “differently abled”. To me, saying our differences are unremarkable diminishes the experiences and barriers Deaf people face everyday because of a society that is unwilling to make things work. It’s like we must see Deaf people as being exactly the same as hearing people in order to consider them as human and worthy.

Éric Lartigau also seems to love making wide generalisations about Deaf people. They are very straightforward. Blunt, even. Not hearing music is a terrible interdiction. Deaf people are strong-willed. Also, LSF is rich, but “each person has their own style” (you mean just like hearing people when they speak?!). On top of this, he can’t make up his mind with what to call them: hard of hearing, deaf-mute, Deaf, he mixes and matches.

Finally, let’s remember he is the man who doesn’t see ANY issue whatsoever with hearing people being Deaf on screen while being reportedly scared of getting the LSF wrong in the movie. He has mentioned that he “understands the radical people who are not ok with this”, yet is completely unwilling to review his opinion.

PS: to talk about hearing people, he talks about “us big ears”. That’s all.

Karin Viard’s awareness (who plays Gigi, the Deaf mum).

Sources: The Independent, Le Petit Journal (Fr<->LSF if you have good eyes, no subtitles), Allociné.fr (Fr, no subtitles).

Karin Viard has a big mouth, and she puts her foot in it A LOT.

“Deaf people are like expressive clowns.” That one speaks for itself.

“Deaf people are born and grow up with sign language so they are very dexterous while I really struggled with certain signs.” Karin Viard is apparently blissfully unaware of how many Deaf children are not given access to sign language, including LSF in our own country.

“Deaf people have way fewer words than we do!” I think what she meant is that for certain expressions you use facial expressions rather than extra words (e.g. to say how fast you were going in your car), but unless you know that, that’s not the message you get from such a statement.

“There is one sign language per country. That’s completely absurd.” Wait, after 6 months hanging out with a Deaf teacher, that topic never came up once? She is completely missing some basic understanding of what LANGUAGE is. While I do expect this comment from people who have had no contact with LSF and sign languages, she should know better.

François Damiens’ awareness (who plays Rodolphe, the Deaf dad).

Sources: as above.

François, François, François. To begin with, Damiens is unable to refrain himself from using the term “deaf-mute”, even though he played with a Deaf actor who spoke in the movie.

“It’s a deaf-mute family. It’s just like having a brother who’s lost a leg or can’t see, you forget about it really quickly.” Here again, deafness must be forgotten for Deaf people to be seen as "normal" and full-fledged members of society and it sounds like forgetting about someone’s deafness is a good thing. Surely it’s pretty handy to remember in order to effectively communicate with someone. This interpretation of what he said may sound like a stretch, but he added “they laugh just as much as us, talk as much as us, and are as evolved as us”. Thanks for the reminder. He’s also said that “all of us are more or less disabled, some people’s disability just shows more”. No, François, just no.

Finally, both François Damiens and Karin Viard have admitted they have completely lost their LSF, a year post-filming. This shows further that any LSF they’ve learnt was cramming, cramming, cramming, with little to no Deaf awareness in and no will to continue down that path, as opposed to Louane Emera (see below) or Isabelle Carré who played in Marie Heurtin.

Louane Emera’s awareness (who plays Paula, the hearing daughter).

I’ve not found that much about Louane Emera’s awareness, besides things I have already mentioned. The fact that she applauded enthusiastically after someone said having hearing actors is ok suggests that she doesn’t see a problem with it either.

She is the only one who has mentioned continuing to learn LSF (she will take it for her baccalaureate). She’s gotten close to Luca and interviewers have asked her at least twice about it when she was seen chatting with him while they are showing the trailer.

Luca Gelberg’s perception.

While I’ve picked up here on all the things that show a lack of awareness, it is important to note that Luca Gelberg has expressed positive feelings (Fr<->LSF, no subtitles) towards the actors. I am not saying that people who worked on the movie walk around consciously trying to oppress Deaf people. However, through what they say about their experience of the movie, they perpetuate certain things when they should know better. In the few interviews I’ve seen where Luca Gelberg is seen, he doesn’t really get asked about LSF or being Deaf and it is actually the hearing actors who become ambassadors for this aspect of the movie.

Deaf awareness in the news.

Journalists reporting about the movie have not shown much awareness either. To begin with, they don’t know what to call Deaf people (and how can we blame them since the people who worked on the movie don’t either).

They also don’t know what to call LSF. See, where English has one word (language), French has two (langue and langage). Langage is the ability we have to communicate. Langue is the system within which this ability is expressed (through English, French, BSL, LSF, ASL…). As a result, calling LSF “langage des signes français” rather than “langue des signes française” is inaccurate and diminishing. It suggests that LSF is not a full-fledged language, as the word “langage” is also used for computer languages for example. Journalists have NOT gotten the memo on that one and they persist in using the wrong term. An article in English even talks about “Deaf Sign Language”.

A lot of emphasis is given to Paula as “the helper”, considering that her parents really cannot live without her. So while all my comments might seem exaggerated, the way the movie is covered in the news really shows how the full context of Deaf culture and our long history of oppression towards Deaf people does not get mentioned. I have been reading anything I could put my hands on regarding the movie and I am not seeing a dialogue opening up about this at all. As a result, members of the public are not encouraged to think about these issues either, and an opportunity is missed.

Conclusion.

I hope this has helped clarify my thoughts. Do I feel bad for bringing up a lot of negative material about a movie which most people are enthusiastic about? A little bit. I don’t want to be criticising people’s work. I have however tried to also give positive aspects which I think should have been developed, and I am not trying to be negative for the sake of it. Rather, I hope some people may realise that I am not being a radical and neither are the other people who have been critical of the movie (not that radical is an insult).

My final impression is that we have a bunch of hearing people who were desperate to be appropriate (Karin Viard mentioned not sleeping for fear of being perceived badly by the Deaf community) and do things well, yet largely missed the point, hiding under the premise that the movie isn’t a documentary about Deaf people but a story about departure and separation. Sometimes I worry about speaking up for fear of accidentally saying something ableist or otherwise awful, but at least I do try to be aware and think about it. Neither of these seem to be happening much around this movie, though.

Tags: Deaf, awareness, cinema