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Deaf Film Festival to offer cinema for, by deaf community

– A first-ever Deaf Film Festival at the University of California, Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive Theater will be held later this month to highlight the work of deaf actors, film crews, directors, characters and culture.

The three-day event, Feb. 21-23, will feature films, shorts and lectures. Organizers say the program is a West Coast first.

At its most basic level, the festival aims to provide a venue for deaf film makers and actors to have their work shown, and to offer them encouragement, said a festival organizer, Nancy Cayton, who works with the American Sign Language program at Vista Community College in Berkeley.

"By doing so, we also want to provide a means for members of the deaf community to see films that are in their native language and to have deaf characters that are believable, with story lines that the deaf community can relate to," she said.

There is little available to the deaf community in terms of enjoying a feature film, Cayton said. Some theaters show regular Hollywood films with open captions-text for the lines and important sounds that looks like subtitles-for deaf audiences, she said, "but that is not really the same as a film that has a deaf point of view with deaf actors."

At the Pacific Film Archive (PFA), curator Steve Seid said he hopes that hearing individuals also will attend the Deaf Film Festival "so they can get a sense of what this other culture is like."

Cayton said there are no hard figures for the number of deaf residents in Northern California, but that the region is home to one of the largest deaf communities in the nation. She estimated the Bay Area's deaf community reaches into the thousands. American Sign Language is the fourth most common language in the United States, and Vista Community College is a national leader in that language. Its sign language program enrolls about 350 students each semester. Vista faculty developed the "Signing Naturally" curriculum that has become an international model for teaching sign language.

The PFA has offered a few films over the years dealing with deaf culture, but has never focused a program in such a way, Seid said. When Cayton approached the archive last spring, the Deaf Film Festival began to take shape. Although Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., featured a deaf film program last summer, a deaf film festival is scheduled this spring in Chicago for the second consecutive year, and England has hosted a deaf TV and film festival for seven years, such events remain rare, said Seid and Cayton.

The UC Berkeley festival will tap an intriguing blend of language and technologies to offer far-from-ordinary accessibility for deaf and non-signing patrons alike.

Films and lectures will be in sign language and translated into spoken English via headphones by certified interpreters, most of whom are donating their services. The headphones are on loan from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. There also will be assistive listening devices for viewers who want amplification of sound.

A short film from England, "Silent Film," features British Sign Language, which has a different alphabet than American Sign Language, so a written synopsis of the film will be provided.

The festival, a project co-hosted by the PFA and the American Sign Language program at Vista, in association with San Leandro's Dcara Deaf Store, will begin with "I Love You, But ..." That film's writers, director and actors include deaf, as well as hearing, actors. The story about a romance between a deaf woman and hearing man is told in American Sign Language, with spoken dialogue in subtitles.

Other feature films will include "Bangkok Dangerous," a Thai thriller with a deaf hit man, and "I Love You," a Japanese family drama made by hearing and deaf artists. The latter also is the first Japanese feature film co-directed by a deaf artist. Director Akihiro Yonaiyama, a founding member of Japan's Deaf Theater, will attend the showing of this film, presented in Japanese Sign Language and in spoken Japanese, with English subtitles.

The concept of a "deaf cinema" will be addressed in a lecture during the festival by Jane Norman, a professor of communication studies at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. She will explore such issues as similarities or differences between the deaf community and other minority communities, whether deaf cinema has its own, unique aesthetics and what the development of deaf cinema says about contemporary society.

In a lecture, "Hollywood Speaks," John S. Schuchman, a history professor emeritus from Gallaudet University, will trace the depiction of deafness by Hollywood dating back to the Silent Era.

A collection of shorts-from the United Kingdom, Austria, Germany, Finland and Norway-will conclude the program on Sunday, Feb. 23. Each short will be presented in its nation's native sign language.

Tickets to the festival are available through the PFA's TTY system at (510) 642-8734, through the Deaf Counseling, Advocacy and Referral Agency's (DCARA's) Deaf Store in San Leandro and its Web site and at the PFA box office. General admission is $8 per event, but just $2 more for patrons attending a second film or event on the same day.

The Pacific Film Archive's companion, the Berkeley Art Museum, is offering two gallery tours that weekend with sign language interpretations. One of the tours focuses on the work of artist James Castle, who was deaf from birth and never learned to speak, read, write or use sign language. That tour begins at 1:30 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 22. The other tour, of Fred Wilson exhibitions, begins at 1:30 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 23.