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La Famille Bélier: Deaf People on screen?

2014-12-19

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For the past couple of days, I've had several debates over Facebook regarding a French movie that has just gone out.

The movie is called "La Famille Bélier" aka in English "The Ram Family". No, they're not a bunch of rams roaming about in a farm (though they do live in a farm... I've just realised what they did there), it's just their last name. Apparently it's supposed to make it sound like they are strong-willed and stuff. Or something like that…

I will go watch this movie, seeing as I'm in France for the holidays. The movie is branded as a box office success, which they want to surpass "Les Intouchables" ("The Untouchables"). By the way, what these have in common is that, you know, the bloke in "The Untouchables" was in a wheelchair, in this movie the parents in the family are Deaf, so we have one big category of movies. "What's better than a movie about the disabled to surpass a movie about the disabled." Sorry, sarcasm off for a minute.

While I don't want to fully critique the movie without watching it, of course, I did have a few hesitations about it, which I could voice before even seeing it. These were:

The trailer that had no subtitles.

After asking the production on Twitter, there is actually a subtitled version.
What is a shame is that every online newspaper I've seen that has covered the movie has included the trailer with no subtitles and embedded it in their article. It has 350,000 views and counting right now. If I click on that trailer to go to the Youtube website, the version WITH subtitles doesn't appear on the right in related videos. Basically, to get the subtitles, I have to go to the Youtube website, click on the Youtube channel of the production, go to "Videos", and have a look through, knowing that they have uploaded several videos since. Wow. So practical! It has fewer than 10,000 views, by the way. The non-subtitled video is so prominent that even googling relevant keywords still gives me that one as a top choice.

Surprised? Knowing that Youtube has the facility to provide ONE video, where you can turn subtitles on and off, well, that's disappointing...

Oh and if you're wondering, their other trailers don't have subtitles. So I guess that they did make a special effort... Oops, sarcasm is back on. No, really, the effort stopped there, since the movie won't be available with subtitles for ALL viewings, ALL over France, like oh, I don't know, the movie Marie Heurtin supported by Art'Pi, a Deaf-led magazine...

Note: following my tweets to Mars Distribution, Stimento mag decided to embed the subtitled version instead. Kudos to them.

The problem I have with this => Once again, Deaf people require special access. So special that it needs a completely separate video, when having one video would be possible, with subtitles on/off. They will also need special screenings of the movie (which will be very few and far between). It just helps to perpetuate the idea that Deaf people are some sort of different class within society and a sub-class at that.

How to fix it => Have one video. Heck, at the very least, if you do need two videos because of the subtitling colour-coding (which you can't do in Youtube I believe but I may be wrong), put the link of the subtitled video in the description of the non-subtitled video and vice-versa and encourage news outlets to share the subtitled version at the bottom of their articles. (Here I am taking into account that there are people who do find subtitles make it more difficult for them to follow so I don't want to suggest having just one video where you can't put subtitles off if needed.) Also, show the movie with subtitles in cinemas WIDELY. Seriously. I can't believe I have to spell this out. A petition has been started for this though it's apparently more of a "coup de gueule" (rant?) than an actual petition (that shows how much hope there is that they will actually listen!).

The Deaf parents are played by hearing actors.

That's all I should have to say, but I have had a great lengthy debate with someone doing a master's in cinema explaining to me that I'm wrong. It's okay for hearing people to play Deaf people on screen, because hey, that's acting, and what, are we saying only women can write about women? With thoughts like mine, apparently, society breaks down because I'm suggesting that hearing and Deaf people can't understand each other. Now I don't want to be too harsh on that person because we did have a long and interesting debate which forced me to argue my point, and she didn't close the door. But as with point number one, I shouldn't have to spell this out. As Maysoon Zayid has said: "If a wheelchair user can't play Beyoncé, then Beyoncé can't play a wheelchair user". That's valid for Deaf people too.

Yann Cantin has written an article (here for an English version) about this where he argues much better than I could and picks up on many pieces of information I didn't even know before getting annoyed at this (namely the fact that both actors don't even use the same "sign language", to begin with… François Damiens, from Belgium, was taught French Belgian Sign Language. Karin Viard and Louane Emera were taught French Sign Language). Also, in the trailer we can see the daughter speaks while signing and for a full sentence we get… what, three signs?

When I inquired about this to Mars Distribution, they said the son is Deaf in real life, and as Cantin picks up on too, that's not a major role and the message is clear: hey, this is our Christmas big comedy big box office numbers, we can't have a Deaf actor in a major role! Or else, it won't be as bankable… As one of the people I debated with told me: French cinema isn't in good health, and that means making some choices to make sure a movie gets out there.

Deaf people as a comedy effect.

I long for the day when someone will be Deaf in a movie and they'll be just, you know, Deaf. They won't be there to inspire or overcome or make people laugh or anything like that. They'll just be a character in the story with a storyline other than "being the Deaf character". In the trailer only, we have:

This is dehumanising Deaf people. They're not really human. Also, they can't exist without their children. I have the impression that a lot of the "feel good" effect of the movie is based on the whole "poor 16-year-old hearing daughter wants to become a singer and go get taught in Paris because her teacher said she should, Deaf mum and dad wouldn't be able to cope without her, everyone gets upset, but they overcome because FAMILY".

Are Deaf people really on screen?

Some people have argued to me that we should celebrate the fact that we have something related to Deaf people and sign language on the big screen. The thing is, though, the movie is meant as a comedy and as a comedy only. Well, that and a provider of some good cute warmy feelings for Christmas, of course. I doubt there is any agenda to actually increase Deaf awareness (Update 22.12.2014: in this discussion in French (no subtitles, no LSF) that happened after a preview showing, a slightly tense Éric Lartigau more than confirms this after a question from the public).

This is completely different from the movie Marie Heurtin which gave great exposure to Ariana Rivoire and meant she gave interviews on TV with an interpreter (French<->LSF interpretation, no subtitles), as well as Noémie Churlet. THAT'S exposure. As for Isabelle Carré, the hearing actress who plays the Sister who takes care of Marie Heurtin? Well, from what I've seen of her (LSF->French interpretation, no subtitles), she's gotten pretty Deaf-aware with this role and has been praised for this.

To me, likening a movie like "La Famille Bélier" to a tool that will suddenly make people aware of sign language and Deaf people is like saying hearing people doing sign songs is great exposure to Deaf culture. Bottom line is: is any publicity good publicity, or, is any "awareness" good awareness?

Update 24.12.2014: you can read a follow-up of this post here and a critique of the movie itself there.

Tags: Deaf, cinema