I recently watched one of the most moving films I have ever seen. It was called A Life Without Words and it raised a lot of questions in my mind. It made me realise just how much we take for granted in this country and how hard it really is for many Deaf people living in the developing world with no access to basic healthcare services, audiology, education and even language.
I went to see the documentary at the Royal College of Medicine in Central London. After the showing, there was a panel discussion with the film’s director, Adam Isenberg, and three other people. Dr Michael York, an anthropologist from University College London (UCL) chaired the panel discussion.
The auditorium where the screening was held was packed, reflecting how popular this event was. There were many Deaf people there. I was really curious to see this film ever since my friend Emily Bell from the charity ‘Soundseekers’ had told me about it. Her charity helps D/deaf and hard of hearing people, particularly children, in the developing world, so she was keen to see this film too.
It is a true story set in rural Nicaragua. It was filmed over a period of fifteen days and shows the life of three young siblings, Dulce Maria, who was twenty-eight when the film was made two years ago, and her brothers José Francisco (22) and Juan Andrés (14). The older brother and sister had been deaf from birth, while the younger brother had become deaf a couple of years before.
The siblings did not know any language, whether written, spoken or sign language, because they had never been taught it. They had not had any education and they lived in an isolated world of their own, being unable to communicate or express themselves with the outside world in any meaningful way.
Their parents and family tried to communicate with them in Spanish, but they had also developed their own basic home sign language and visual gesturing. It was obvious that the older brother and sister felt emotion and understood certain things.
They both worked on the farm helping their parents and it was obvious from their body language that they felt really shy and uncomfortable around other people. Their mother explained that Dulce Maria was obstinate and rebellious, as she often didn’t do as she was told.
Then, a Deaf teacher of Nicaraguan sign language came to their home in order to try to teach the siblings their first words of sign language. She spent several hours with them each day patiently trying to teach them basic signs related to the world around them, such as animals, plants and everyday objects in their home. Despite her compassion and patience towards them, it seemed like she was making little progress.
Although they seemed to be interested and curious about her, they were reluctant and shy to learn signing. It seemed as if they didn’t know what the point of it was and why they needed to learn it. This was very frustrating and upsetting for the teacher. In a very poignant and heart-breaking scene we saw her in tears as she explained how she loved the three of them, and it was unbearable for her that she couldn’t seem to get through to them.
I really wanted the teacher to have a “breakthrough moment” with the two brothers and the sister for them to realise how important learning sign language would be to them as a way of opening up the world to them. They could then express themselves properly, communicate with others and feel less socially isolated and uncomfortable.
I hoped that over a longer time period than fifteen days more progress could be made, but I feared that it might be too late for them. Perhaps they really can’t understand why they need to learn to sign language to communicate as no-one has ever taught them it before and they don’t know of any other way of life. Perhaps they are just too scared and embarrassed to learn. We can’t know.
The panel discussion afterwards was fascinating and stimulated a lot of questions from the audience and interesting debate among the panel members. They talked about whether and how the brothers and sister felt emotion. Adam Isenberg said that it was obvious that they did feel emotion. He saw them look sad, happy, embarrassed and angry sometimes by their behaviour, body language and facial expressions. They just couldn’t express how they felt in words.
A member of the audience asked the Director if he knew how they thought if they had no language to think in like we do. He answered that we can’t really know, but they clearly had simple thoughts based on their family and the immediate world that they saw around them, as they had no access to the wider world outside. They didn’t go to school and they had no electricity, TV or access to the internet.
One of the panel members, Robert, a Deaf BSL user, asked Adam if he thought the film might have been different if it had been made by a Deaf filmmaker. Adam said that it wouldn’t have made any difference as the issue wasn’t about deafness, but rather lack of communication and social interaction. Robert didn’t seem convinced by this argument as he thought that the film would have been different if it had been made by a Deaf filmmaker. Personally, I think it could have been interesting if it had been made by a Deaf filmmaker, as I think they might have had a real understanding of the importance of sign language.
Robert also asked Adam how he had gained consent from the siblings to film them if they were unaware of what was happening. Adam said that he had asked for consent from their parents, and that the girl, Dulce María, was happy to be filmed as she seemed to love the attention and wanted him to film her. The younger brother, however, didn’t like to be filmed, and in fact there were only a couple of scenes in the film with him it. Robert still wasn’t convinced that he could have gained consent from people who couldn’t possibly understand what the film was about.
Adam explained that he had shown the film to the whole family. He described how Dulce María suddenly cried when she saw her younger sister on the screen who had left a year before at the age of 16 when she got married and went away. She didn’t understand what had happened to her sister and that was the first time that she’d seen her since she’d left.
For me, this is an incredibly poignant and thought-provoking film. Sadly, it is not on general release, but I would recommend anyone to go and see it if you get the chance. It is beautifully filmed, very moving and I felt sad at the hopelessness of the situation. I think that having access to education, language and basic communication skills should be a basic human right for every human being in this world. Sadly, for many Deaf people in the developing world, they are denied this, as this film shows. Visit the films official website here.
By Richard Turner
Richard lost most of his hearing three years ago and has since become a passionate campaigner and award-winning volunteer for deaf charities. His aim is to increase deaf awareness and highlight the emotional impact of hearing loss, as well as showing the positive sides of deafness. Richard regularly blogs about accessibility and other deaf issues at his blog My New Deaf Journey
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