French director Etienne de Clerck’s 2012 documentary The Third Brigade of Libya was compelling in the way it introduced the idea of deaf soldiers; or more accurately, a brigade of armed deaf rebels who took part in the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011.
On the face of it, the idea that soldiers could be deaf is just too ridiculous. With one exception, there are believed to be no deaf or hearing-impaired people who serve in armed forces around the world. The exception is the Israeli Defence Forces, which require deaf and hard-of-hearing people to serve in roles not requiring combat.
It depends on how we think of “soldiers”; the word suggests uniformed combatants under control of a highly regimented hierarchy. The emergence of insurgency in parts of the world, in Afghanistan and in the Middle East in the Arab Spring, sees combatants with a tenuous connection to the idea of a soldier. The “uniform” of these militants comprises black T-shirts, camo pants, perhaps a bandolier, the obligatory machine gun and a confident swagger.
In The Third Brigade, never has the expression “fighting for your rights” been portrayed so literally. Yes, the deaf militia in the rebel forces which overthrew Gaddafi were also fighting for their freedom, and for their country. They did so by currying and gaining favour with hearing supporters, convincing them of their worth, and by joining them in running roadblocks. The rebels set up barriers on key roads leading to a hospital, and checked each car for the papers of its occupants, and for weapons. There was at least one hearing supporter with them, and they communicated in signs and hand signals.
Did they do any actual fighting? Did they shoot at armed Gaddafi loyalists, and were they shot at in return? This was implied, but was not clear. It was told to the documentary’s genial host, who nodded enthusiastically to everything they signed to him.
The only shooting in the documentary came from one of the deaf rebels firing a massive twin-barrelled machine gun mounted on the back of a ute. He was shooting up the side of a large sandhill, which of course was not going to be shooting back. At the very least that would convince excitable deaf boys everywhere that yes, deaf people can do anything.
We don’t know the deaf rebels’ response under enemy fire. They talked about it, but only in general terms The documentary could have sussed this out. It skirted the edges and didn’t delve into the heart of the conflict, as if the shock value of deaf soldiers standing around and signing with obvious enthusiasm was somehow sufficient
The documentary’s chief value was related to matters peripheral to armed conflict. The reporter sat with one of the rebels who drove him about city streets. It was delightful to see a deaf man driving while signing and not looking at the road in front, something we all do. Communication won out over dull stuff like keeping an eye on the road.
If this documentary could not show the deaf rebels in the midst of conflict, such as being under fire, then it did the next best thing: it showed the way the deaf rebels pooled together their considerable skills. They rebuilt weapons and mounted them to the back of utes. These deaf Libyan men were skilled welders, metal workers, and engineers, and solved problems with ingenuity.
But many important points went missing. The documentary did not give a hearing perspective. Was it not possible to ask a hearing commander of the rebel forces what he thought? Not a single woman was featured, but I have no doubt deaf women had a part to play. It would have been fascinating to know if there were deaf sympathisers in the Gaddafi loyalist forces. Somehow I doubt it. The doco could have investigated some of the claims by the rebels, particularly the status of deaf people under Gaddafi’s regime. They painted a bleak picture, a claim not that surprising, but it needed to be corroborated.
Our host was a competent reporter who did well to give a broader context to what was going on. At times his performance bordered on the gormless. Shown a loaded pistol by our earnest deaf driver and confidante, his gosh–gee–golly response was distinctly odd for a part of the world awash with weaponry. I half-expected him to peer down the barrel and ask, “what will happen if I pull this funny thing here?”
The documentary became a little too accepting of the deaf rebels’ point-of-view, and risked an attitude that deafness absolved them from critical examination. It lacked a response from hearing commanders, which would have been important. Its greatest strength lay in the way it showed the deaf Libyans’ passion as they worked for the rebels’ war effort. In the compelling context of the ridiculous idea of deaf soldiers, this worked well.
If you believe in something and want to do it badly enough, then you will do it. It is unsatisfying to say that you will do this thing “in spite of” deafness. Deaf people are cleverer than that. This documentary revealed the deaf rebels as skilled, passionate and dedicated to a cause, and hinted that sometimes, deafness gives you an advantage.
Michael Uniacke is a freelance writer. He was one of the judges at The Other Film Festival in Melbourne, Australia, where this documentary was shown.
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