Donna Williams: Brazil’s Festival of Deaf Folklore was a rich, rewarding experience

Posted on February 2, 2017

Photos provided by videographer Martin Haswell, who posted an interview with Miriam Lerner about her documentary ‘The Heart of the Hydrogen Jukebox’, earlier this year. See Martin’s  film of the Festival of Deaf Folklore below.

The Festival de Folclore Surdo / Festival of Deaf Folklore was held at the Universidade Federale Santa Catarina (UFSC), Florianopolis, Brazil from 10th to 13th December. Organised by Fernanda de Araujo Machado and Dr Rachel Sutton-Spence, the aim of the festival was to bring together the Brazilian Deaf community and experienced sign language artists from Brazil and around the world.

Not just a wonderful excuse for a jolly – though it was that – it had a serious purpose: sharing and teaching the traditions and styles of Deaf signed folklore, so that more Brazilian deaf people can create and perform their own work in Brazilian sign language.

Festival de Folclore Surdo: o filme from Martin Haswell on Vimeo.

I had the massive good fortune to be one of the deaf performers invited to headline the festival, alongside Richard Carter (UK), Johanna Mesch (Sweden), Peter Cook, Ella Mae Lentz and John Maucere (USA), Atiyah Asmal, Susan Njeyiyana (South Africa), Giuseppe Giuranna (Italy), Marlene Prado, Carlos Alberto Goes, Silas Quieros, Carolina Hessel, Rosani Suzin, Rosana Grasse and Renata Heinzelmann (Brazil).

It was wonderful to be surrounded by so much talent and learn from all of them! The festival was four intense days of presentations, workshops, panels, performances, more panels, competitions and an incredible experience.

It all kicked off with a day of introductions; the invited speakers were split off into groups and we all gave presentations on who we were, our work and influences. Both Richard Carter and I – despite planning and giving our presentations independently – gave big props to Dot Miles as an influence; she truly is the mother of BSL poetry!

On that first day, we were grouped with Johanna Mesch, a Swedish poet who began her career at the tender age of six. She’s a little older now, and has a great skill with sign language haikus (short poems with a twist). The first day ended with a bang; an electrifying evening performance by visual vernacular virtuoso Giuseppe Giuranna and ‘Super Deafy’ star John Maucere.

Sunday saw the start of workshops, this time the presenters were split by speciality i.e. comedy, poetry and storytelling. I was lucky enough to be assigned to poetry with Peter Cook, Johanna Mesch and three talented Brazilian poets; Renata Heinzelmann, Rosana Grasse and Rosani Suzin. Through the workshops, we learnt from each other’s styles of poetry and presentation, and I daresay the participants had something to teach us all as well.

It was great to see them take things we had taught them and put their own spins on it; there was talent in abundance and some very powerful feedback and performances, some of which were put in the competitions.

Ah, the competitions – on the last day, the best pieces / participants from each workshop were invited to show what they had created in a participant’s competition / slam. With three workshops on each topic over two days, there were plenty of pieces and plenty of talent to admire. But I’m getting ahead of myself, we’re still on day two of a very busy festival!

In the poetry workshops, I was presenting on identity. Most of my poems reflect my dual belonging (or feeling not so much) to both hearing and deaf worlds; I wanted to encourage the participants to consider their own identity and selves and how they would express them and their struggles in poem form.

I hadn’t realised how rich and diverse Brazilian culture is; I knew about Portuguese influence but not about the German, Italian, French, Japanese, English, former slaves from Africa, all the cultures that have for one reason or another ended up in Brazil and contributed to one of the biggest melting pots I’ve ever seen.

The participants all had rich backgrounds as well as their deafness, and watching them discuss and come up with poems about their experiences with identity was eye-opening and touching.

All of the workshops seemed to go really well, with the participants eagerly soaking up everything Peter, Johanna, Renata, Rosana, Rosani and I had to give and judging from the feedback over the weekend, all the other workshops were as well-received.

The second day finished with an open mic and performances by whoever wished to get up on the outside stage and a small monsoon. (Brazilian weather – lovely warm morning without a cloud in the sky to a monsoon back to a lovely warm evening = perfectly normal day.) There were performances of all sorts, from poetry to a clown to storytelling by deaf kids and showed there was plenty of local talent to go around!

Day three and more workshops and panels – the Brazilian performers were seated on one side of the stage, the internationals on the other and officiating it all was Nelson Pimenta, a Brazilian deaf sign language teacher, academic and celebrity.

Various topics were discussed, from the current status of sign language performance to where we see deaf arts going to how technology may affect deaf arts and communities in the future. It was really interesting to see everybody’s points of view and how some values and experiences transcend international borders.

At this point, I really should give some love to Italo, my BSL / Libras (Brazilian Sign Language) interpreter, without whom I’m not sure how I would have survived all this! My shaky grasp of international sign language and Libras was quickly overwhelmed on day one, though I’m happy to say by day four I was fending for myself. That said, Italo, you’re a lifesaver. Much love. I digress.

After the panels, there was an amazing show by participants who had been in Giuseppe Giuranna’s Visual Vernacular workshop. My favourite was definitely the man who managed to embody a full carnival parade, from the samba dancers to the steel drummers to the crowd, all by himself and entirely in VV. It was clear and beautiful, as were all the participant performers!

Day three ended with a big show by the headline guests, all of us only having a few minutes to show off our best work, simply because there were so many of us. What a lovely situation to be in, to have so many deaf performers that one has to start rationing how many minutes they’re allowed onstage! It all kicked off with national anthems, which I’ve never seen at any big deaf event before, but in Brazil they take it deadly seriously.

The Brazilian national anthem was delivered with great fanfare, signed by Rosani Suzin with a lot of passion, backed by a video of patriotic images of Brazil (flag, beaches, happy people, etc) and a stirring anthem played at full volume, loud enough to feel it. The entire audience stood up, many had a hand on their heart and some were signing along. I was awed.

And worried, since I’d agreed to do my own national anthem and had only prepared the short stanzas that get played at sporting events, as a poem riffing on sign language (God save the Queen / BSL), with no video or music backing. I felt like the flute player who has to go on stage after a full orchestra has already wowed the audience with a stunning rendition of the Messiah.

As it was, all the international poets had taken different approaches, from sign songs to poems and they all looked good, and I think I did OK! It was a great example of how different poets can take on a similar project and put their own spins on it, and definitely added to the atmosphere of diversity.

All of the performances were stunning, and different. There was no one performance that looked like another. From the visually dazzling poem by Renata which used UV light and glow in the dark paint to the Brazilian comedy trio to Susan’s ‘running tree’ to Richard’s kilted brand of BSL poetry to Peter’s always heartbreaking ‘Charlie’ to Johanna’s haikus to an arboreal puppet, it was a great and varied show and easily the most and best professional deaf performers I’ve seen in one space at any one time and I was honoured to be in their presence.

I think I acquitted myself well, performing two poems including My Cat, which got good feedback. It’s good to know everyone loves my cat as much as I do! What an amazing evening, and one I won’t forget anytime soon.

Day four was a slightly quieter affair, but still fitted in a big panel to discuss and dissect the previous night’s show, with the performers invited to come up on stage to answer questions from the audience about their performances.

The Q & A was fascinating and the audience had plenty of good questions! I also discovered that in Brazil, the national anthem is played at school assemblies. It’s a Big Thing.

Then it was time for the competition, as the chosen workshop participants performed their pieces in front of not just an audience, but a panel of eminent Brazilian poets who were scoring them, ‘strictly come dancing’ style.

I have to give lots of kudos to the bravery of the participants, it takes guts to perform in front of audience for the first time, never mind a panel of famous professionals with scores! The talent was clear to be seen, as sevens, eights, nines and tens rained like confetti, and the poems and stories and sketches were brilliant, especially considering they had all been composed within the last 48 hours. Great achievements by all the participants and workshop teachers!

After that, it was time for official goodbyes and congratulations and presents and photos and more goodbyes. It was an intense, rich, rewarding experience, and big well done and thank you must go to the organisers and all the amazing volunteers! Festival de Folclore Surdo was wonderful, and I hope it won’t be the last!

Donna Williams is has written a range of articles for Limping Chicken. She is a Deaf writer and blogger living in Bristol and studying part-time in Cardiff. As well as being a postgrad student, she’s a BSL poet, freelance writer, NDCS Deaf Role Model presenter, and occasional performer. She tweets as@DeafFirefly

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