Around the World in several Films: “Round up the Unusual Suspects!”

Author: Ashvin Immanuel Devasundaram

As the dust settles on the febrile buzz surrounding the Oscars, it becomes possible to take a step back, delink cinema from this veneer of glitz and glamour and reframe it through a broader global cinematic filter. The last couple of years, in particular, have conjured an eclectic and heady mix of films, from often unexpected places on the planet. As my PhD research straddles the realms of film studies, World cinema and film philosophy, I reckoned this may be a propitious moment to round up the ‘not so usual’ cinematic suspects. Let us cast a glance at films that provide us with vibrant, colourful, uplifting and occasionally disturbing glimpses of other nations, cultures and people.

Wadjda, is the first Saudi Arabian film made by a female director, and also the first filmed entirely in Saudi Arabia. This film is essential viewing, if only to afford the wider world a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Saudi citizens, particularly women and children. The title character – 10 year old Wadjda is a revelation and her honest, impish performance is at once charming and captivating.

Paulo Sorrentino’s tribute to Rome, The Great Beauty is a whimsical masterpiece, as evocative as anything Federico Fellini has created. France’s powerhouse credentials in art cinema were reinforced with Blue is the Warmest Colour and Stranger by The Lake. Both films shimmered and rippled in their representations of lesbian and gay relationships, whilst Apres Mai’s (Something in the Air) palpable rendition of the 1970s radical student movement was heightened by its impeccable aesthetic.

Director Anand Gandhi’s poetic and philosophical Indian masterpiece Ship of Theseus used the modes of hyperlink cinema along with bustling Mumbai cityscapes, to entwine three disparate narratives- a blind photographer, a rebellious monk with liver cirrhosis and an improbable good Samaritan on a quest to retrace a stolen human kidney.

Last year saw the release of two outstanding biopics. Legendary auteur Andrzej Wajda’s Walesa: Man of Hope about the Lech Wałęsa led solidarity movement in Poland, and Margarethe von Trotta’s film, Hannah Arendt about the eponymous German philosopher’s brush with the banality of evil.
Alternately labelled dormant or moribund, American independent cinema received a boost in the form of Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene; a brooding and disturbing immersion into America’s penchant for obscure cults.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s chilling exposé on Indonesian death squad leaders in darkly disconcerting ‘The Act of Killing’ is an example of innovative narrative approaches to the theme of genocide.

British cinema had its own coruscating examples, with Ken Loach’s hysterically funny and quintessentially Scottish, The Angel’s Share, and the powerful, documentary retrospective, The Spirit of ‘45 – a paean to the post-1945 Labour welfare state. Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant, was an inspired reworking of the Oscar Wilde tale and Philomena, a powerfully understated narrative continuation of Peter Mullan’s monumental The Magdalene Sisters.

Chilean film ‘No’ starring Gael Garcia Bernal of The Motorcycle Diaries fame, was a politically charged, irony-tinged exposition, about dictator Pinochet’s absolute power and a ‘Yes/No’ referendum poised to determine the birth of a new nation- themes that will no doubt find resonance in several other quarters of the world!

All in all, being a part of Heriot-Watt University’s department of Languages and Intercultural Studies, it is especially wonderful to witness this general glut of global films colouring the spectrum of transcultural cinematic exchanges and informing our perceptions of a constantly changing world.

The global village and the information superhighway have often been credited with enmeshing cultures and people and bringing the world closer together. In my view, cinema is doing the same job…and arguably in far more enjoyable fashion!

Vow of Silence: One week later

(After a week of self-imposed silence, acknowledging the British Deaf Association’s Sign Language week, Professor Graham Turner reflects on a week in a signing world.)

I don’t remember ever being described as ‘Christ-like’ before.

There was a considered and thoughtful explanation. But the starting-point for the person’s comment was a reference to the ‘sacrifice’ that I was making by choosing not to speak for a week.

Which, of course – if you think about it for just a moment – leads inevitably to reflecting on what British Sign Language users experience every day in their encounters with the hearing world. It’s obvious that if I’m ‘making a sacrifice’ by not using speech, it’s considered desirable to speak.

What happens if you don’t?

Well, here’s what happened to me. It’s a kind of insight into what Deaf people routinely face.

People immediately started treating me as if I were invisible. Their logic was, if he can’t speak, then he can’t hear, so he’s irrelevant. Implication? Ouch.

I couldn’t do the everyday things hearing people do just to show that they’re friendly and human. Getting off the bus, I couldn’t thank the driver. When a delivery arrived, I couldn’t pass the time of day with the courier. These things don’t seem to change the world – but they do. There is such a thing as a society. It’s built on these little moments.

At work, too, it’s amazing how much of the important stuff happens in the corridors and the staff kitchen. That quiet word in the Head of Department’s ear. That useful nudge about a forthcoming conference. The deadline for a research funding opportunity.

I published research referring to this very topic over a decade ago.  It was still salutary to get a direct sense of its impact.

I had to rely on colleagues’ good-will to interpret for me once or twice. They knew the score and didn’t mind. But supposing this happened every week? What would that do for our relationship – if I were making frequent withdrawals from their bank of generosity? How quickly would they start seeing me as needy and irritating?

Even with little snippets of interpreting, it helped to take a moment to brief the interpreter-colleague on what I was trying to convey. Over the course of a week, those ‘moments’ added up. If I’d had hour-long lectures to deliver, that preparation time would have increased hugely. Where would I have found the time for this, whilst keeping all the other plates spinning?

In meetings, I tried writing notes for others to read out on my behalf. With my comments in front of them, and me listening, even people I knew still sometimes revised my words. With the best will in the world, my input was being distorted.

Sometimes, I couldn’t get my comments in before the meeting agenda had moved on. So I had a choice. Swallow my contribution and look like the guy who has nothing useful to offer? Or annoy everyone by bringing them back to an issue they’d finished with just to hear what I had to say?

My Deaf colleagues are able to pay for interpreters when required (with funding from the Access to Work scheme). It has transformed the workplace for many BSL users. Hearing signers can’t opt into the scheme. I’d love to maintain my ‘vow of silence’ indefinitely. Without the resource to be interpreted when necessary, it just wouldn’t be possible.

But for Deaf people, this funding – always tightly rationed – is being reduced and new demands imposed by the Department for Work & Pensions. The repercussions are catastrophic. An Early Day Motion has been created seeking a re-think.

Especially after this week, I’d urge anyone to write to their MP and ask for their signature on the Motion. It matters.

I was also reminded that the current qualification system for BSL (levels 1-6) doesn’t push signing skills to the very highest levels of fluency! Knives and forks were definitely not invented by signers. But Deaf people become adept at maintaining signed conversation despite such obstacles. That’s level 7 signing.

Driving a car means that both your hands AND your eyes are otherwise occupied. So Deaf cars lack chat? Not a bit of it. Level 8.

So I’ve made it to Friday. What have I learned? Mostly, what a lot I still have to learn.

I’m profoundly hearing, and I always will be. I can’t inhabit a Deaf person’s life, no matter what. But this week has made me reflect, and see some of these things from a different angle.

How about you?

I’m confident any hearing person would learn from the experience. Don’t do it for my sake. Do it for the person who wrote to me midweek: “I am the mother of three kids, two hearing and one Deaf. Thank you. Your vow of silence means a lot to me.”

And please tell others about it. Tell us by replying to this blog. And watch this space for our plans to make further progress on the issues.

Thanks for listening.

Author: Graham Turner

 

Vow of Silence: Day 4

Having committed to a week of silence to demonstrate solidarity with the UK’s Deaf sign language users, Professor Graham Turner has made it to Thursday without a squeak. Will everyone else’s luck run out before the weekend?

Imagine you’re completely blind. Can you do that? It’s not too difficult: you start by closing your eyes…

Now imagine you’re stone deaf. Not just a wee bit fuzzy round the edges, like your granddad or when you come out of a loud gig. Deaf as a post.

You can’t, can you? We don’t have ear-lids. You can’t switch your hearing off, no matter how hard you try.

This is at the root of the hearing world’s inability to comprehend what Deaf people are on about. Three key things follow from being Deaf.

One, everything the hearing world takes for granted about receive incoming information from the world through hearing, doesn’t apply. I’m on a train. The tannoy says the café closes in five minutes. If I’m Deaf, it could be a long, stomach-rumbling journey to Edinburgh.

Two, fortunately, the eye is a fantastic device. Persuasive evidence shows that Deaf people’s eyes are sharper and wired more responsively to their brains than hearing people’s. The way Deaf people do ‘being alive’ is re-jigged from top to bottom to exploit their different biological make-up.

Notice: not ‘deficient’ – just DIFFERENT.

Three, the kind of language that perfectly suits the bodies of Deaf people is signed language. British Sign Language has evolved naturally over centuries to match Deaf capabilities. Just as spoken languages work for the hearing, signing is perfectly designed to exploit the visual nature of Deaf people.

My ‘vow of silence’ hasn’t turned me into a Deaf person. If I had a heart attack right now, I can confidently predict that I wouldn’t wait for an interpreter to show up before communicating with the paramedics. I’d speak. (And I can’t NOT know that the café has now closed. Fear not: I brought my own biscuits.)

But as I can sign, and I’ve taken the time to learn from Deaf people what their experiences are like, I can get that much closer than most to seeing the world from a Deaf perspective. Our languages powerfully influence the way we think. Language both shapes and reflects our identities. I’m not Deaf, but – bearing in mind that it’s taken me over 25 years to develop my understanding – I do begin to ‘get’ what it means to be Deaf.

What about that heart attack scenario I just envisaged, though? The hearing world has often treated Deaf people as being in need of medical treatment. The urge to ‘fix’ those different ears runs deep… Deaf people say – SHOUT – “Leave us alone! We’re perfectly OK! We don’t need to be cured!”

But when a Deaf person suffers a heart attack, the real nightmares begin. The British Deaf Association’s discussion paper, launched yesterday, reports again  on the life-threatening barriers BSL users face when they actually do need healthcare.

However, it being the 21st century, new ways are being found to bridge this communication gap with Deaf people. In Scotland, NHS24 has piloted the use of video technology to bring ‘remote interpreters’ into the frame. It can work, but of course it depends upon a supply of competent interpreters.

They’ve thought of that, too.

In a UK ‘first’, NHS24 is seconding a group of its staff to Heriot-Watt University’s BSL interpreting degree. That’s a commendable commitment on the part of the service. Investing in four years’ full-time training per student underscores a really serious response to the problem.

And it shows that they know it’s THEIR responsibility to make healthcare properly accessible to BSL users.

That perfectly illustrates what we need to see across the board. Public services – health, education, social services, the legal system – facing their lawful obligation to ENSURE their own accessibility.

Not just by hoping for the best, but by nurturing skilled professional interpreters. And, when it makes sense to use limited resources in this way, to provide frontline practitioners who can sign, fluently and directly, with Deaf citizens.

It’s not a pipedream. It’s a perfectly achievable goal, as other countries have already shown. It just means paying attention to informed advice, especially from the BDA, which represents BSL users nationwide. And then, when you say you will treat Deaf people fairly, it means putting your money where your mouth is.

Now that’s what I call using your imagination.

Author: Graham Turner

Vow of Silence: Day 3

In solidarity with British Sign Language users in the UK, Professor Graham Turner is subject to a self-imposed vow of silence. Can he remain speechless and last for an entire week in BSL? What will he learn from the experience?

Living in Edinburgh, I can barely step out of my front door before someone’s playing the bagpipes at me.

As a matter of fact, I love it. What other country is associated with such a distinctive, pervasive symbol of identity? Ever been to Edinburgh’s Military Tattoo? Once in your life, you should. I may not be a Scot, but up on the battlements, silhouetted against the stars, the piper sends those skirling notes up to the heavens…

Not much use if you’re Deaf, of course.

So is a cultural heritage something you only get if you’re hearing, then?

Do me a favour. Not a bit of it.

The pipes may be great – but YOU HAVEN’T LIVED until you’ve experienced signed art. Had your heart squeezed by signed stories. Washed your eyeballs in tears of laughter at signed comedy. Seen the past re-kindled and the future set ablaze in signed drama.

Oh sorry, I keep forgetting. You ignored sign language until just lately because you thought it wasn’t really as good as speech, didn’t you? Trust me – and I say this as one who’s forgotten more than he cares to remember of the French, Greek, Latin and Swedish he studied in days of yore – you have been mightily misled.

British Sign Language was named – in Edinburgh: where else? – back in the mid-70s by the late, great and much-missed sign linguist, Dr Mary Brennan. The British Deaf Association backed the BSL Training Agency a decade later as it encouraged Deaf people to become professional BSL teachers and pass on their expert knowledge to others – and thousand upon thousand hearing people have opened their minds to BSL since. And it was the BDA again that published its doorstoppingly substantial and globally groundbreaking bilingual BSL-English dictionary in 1992.

So there’s no doubt whatsoever of the linguistic status of BSL. Not only is it a language: it’s a language that can blow your mind.

Unlike users of any spoken language ever discovered, signers can produce more than one word at a time – what did you think you had two hands for? And BSL isn’t just about what the hands do. It’s a full-body experience. Facial expression and bodily action are also exploited as integral features of the grammar. Signed languages are spectacularly creative, constantly playing with words and drenching every expression in a cascade of meaning and nuance.

The signed universe is an astonishing, achingly poetic place to live.

As it happens, Edinburgh is one of the most happening places in the BSL firmament right now. Part of that energy is coming from Heriot-Watt University, where a dozen sign language specialists, from as far afield as the USA and China, passionate and fizzing with ideas, are assembling research evidence  and educating the next generation of UK and global interpreters.

But Edinburgh is also a place to enjoy the cultural depth of the Deaf community, and to experience the rich heritage embodied in BSL. Just last weekend, you could have been at the Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile at the latest Visual Virus show. Three Deaf exponents of the most vivid BSL, and not a sound to be heard all evening except for the cultural heartbeat of the Deaf nation – and that noise people make when they laugh their socks off.

In fact, Scotland stands on the verge of transforming the BSL landscape. With all-party support, Mark Griffin MSP  intends to put a BSL bill before the Scottish Parliament later this year. It will focus minds and energies on securing the future of this language community, and on safeguarding its linguistic human rights.

As yesterday’s BDA BSL Symposium in London clearly showed, the rest of the UK is paying close attention to progress at Holyrood. Deaf people, just like others, are entitled to enjoy our uniquely visual cultural heritage. Our children – including those born to hearing parents – are entitled to share that extraordinary linguistic inheritance.

And, if you only have eyes to see, you’re more than welcome to come in. Just enter through the doorway marked ‘BSL’ and find out for yourself. The future signs.

Author: Graham Turner

Vow of Silence: Day 2

Surgery performed on Deaf people without their consent. Signers unemployed or under-employed, their talents wasted. Shockingly frequent mental health problems as Deaf people struggle to live within a hostile social system. Deaf children in classrooms where they can’t understand the language of instruction. Police, prisons, banks, Inland Revenue – an endless list of institutions not bothering to make sure they are communicating effectively with British Sign Language users.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

In a publication some years ago (alluding to a comparison with the struggle for racial equality), I described this picture as ‘institutional audism’. These things don’t happen because individual non-signing hearing people want Deaf people to suffer. They happen because the social world we inhabit is designed to suit hearing people.

So how could things be changed? Today, the British Deaf Association launches a report www.bda.org.uk pressing to enhance the legal status of BSL (and, because it’s used in parts of the UK, Irish Sign Language). Drawing on extensive research, and sources including the range of international Deaf and hearing students on Heriot-Watt University’s programmes (eg www.eumasli.eu),  I’ve been a member of the task group assembling this discussion document over several months. What alternatives does it offer?

  • Portugal, Uganda and Venezuela have recognised their signed languages within their constitutions.
  • Pro-sign acts of parliament have been passed in Brazil, Poland and Slovakia.
  • Robust official recognition has reached Estonia, Iceland, Latvia and New Zealand.
  • Austria, Finland and Hungary exemplify best practice by meeting the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

And Westminster’s response? ‘We already have adequate legislation’.

Oh really? If you’ve got it covered, how come people wait for days in hospital before anyone thinks to book an interpreter? How come child after child is struggling to follow their lessons because no decent support staff can be found?

And how come no-one who knows the first thing about the linguistic richness and complexity of BSL gets to talk to parents before they’re expected to offer up their children – when they’re just a few months old – for expensive, invasive cochlear implant surgery (initiating years of speech training and neglect of their prime time to learn to sign)?

Why aren’t you ensuring that those children get to know Deaf adults who will inspire them with the confidence that a Deaf life is a good life?

It’s not as if BSL users have failed to tell you what you’re missing. We want the right to live secure, culturally Deaf lives, and to pass on this heritage to deaf children – even those born into hearing families. We want ‘equal access’ to mean what it says: nothing more, nothing less. And we want you to take seriously your obligations to us as citizens, always.

The National Union of the Deaf told you in the 1970s that your approach amounted to linguistic genocide. The BDA issued a manifesto in the 1980s, articulating the case for BSL as Britain’s fourth indigenous language. The Federation of Deaf People marched in protest through the UK’s major cities at the turn of the millennium. Here we come again. We’re not going quietly.

Why so frightened to learn from those who obviously understand best what it means to be Deaf?

Author: Graham Turner

Prof’s Vow of Silence

It’s going to be a quiet week in my office. This week is the British Deaf Association’s ‘Sign Language Week’ (http://www.bda.org.uk/). My contribution? I’m going to shut up.

So if, when you see me this week, you cheerily wish me good morning and hear not a sound in reply, it’s not (just) because I’m a Grumpy Old Man. It’s because I’ve taken a Vow of Silence for the week. What’s the point?

The point is to express solidarity with the Deaf British Sign Language community across the UK. The point is to say we have had it up to HERE with your disrespect for our language, your neglect of our children’s rights, and your unwillingness to listen when we tell you your policies are not working.

So I’m going to sign this week. And, yes, for the first time ever, despite being a hearing person, I’m going to use the words ‘WE’ and ‘OUR’. Not because I’ve vowed to spend one week signing. Because I’ve spent over 25 years working with BSL users, and I have learned to feel utterly ashamed of the never-ending ignorance and arrogance of the hearing majority.

Generation after generation of Deaf people have asked for change. Generation after generation of hearing people in authority – in government, in education, in the health system – have claimed to know better than Deaf people do what is good for them.

They don’t.

And it’s time they showed some humility and LISTENED UP.

Today, hundreds of Deaf people will be attending a mass lobby (http://www.bda.org.uk/Events/125) of MPs in Westminster. They will highlight three things: 1) the right for interpreters in healthcare settings; 2) the failure of government programmes to improve Deaf people’s access to work; 3) the need for language and communication support in everyday life as guaranteed by the Equality Act 2010.

So I’m counting myself as a member of the BSL community because, over a quarter-century, I’ve begun to see stuff from the community’s perspective.

I’ve learned about what it means to deaf children to be denied access to the only language that has evolved over centuries to suit a visual person’s outlook.

I’ve learned about the frustrations of the hearing parents who dearly wish to communicate with their deaf children, but are misguidedly advised that this would be harmful.

I’ve learned about how it feels to be stuck in an A&E ward, a school classroom, a police station, a job interview – without an interpreter who can enable you to understand me.

I can’t tell you how my blood boils to think about all of these outrages.

But I’ll sign it to you. Are you listening?

Author: Graham Turner

Bouncing Ball Research

Is research more like a vase or a bouncing ball?

Vases are pretty. They are wonderfully ornamental and can even inspire poetry. What they do not do, however, is leave a mark. They look good and are to be admired but that’s it.

Vase-style research is similar. It is admirable, excellent and might even inspire some other work. But, outside of the world of academia, vase-style research will leave no trace. Vase-style research represents all those papers that never make it out of the library and into the commercial, industrial or political world.

There is nothing inherently wrong with research like that. There are many good reasons why we need to papers that no one outside of a particular field of study will read. Sometimes research that behaves a lot like an ornamental vase can be the starting point for research that changes policy or impacts communities.

Still, vase-style research represents a way of seeing the research process. Vase-style research can grow out of a desire for researchers to retain absolute control over what happens to their work. In this view, we choose the research topic, we choose the method and we choose the journal. No one else, except for funders and journal editors, has any say over that process. It’s our research and we will decide what happens.

There is, of course, another kind of research. Bouncing ball research can happen when research suddenly seems to take on a life of its own and has effects far beyond what the researchers could have imagined. It’s the kind of work that involves communities from the beginning or looks to inform policy. It’s the kind of work that aims, from the very beginning, to make a measurable, obvious impact in society.

Yet, here is the problem. Work that does all these things often does so in ways that the original researchers could not have imagined. Take the old debate about whether interpreters should interpret out of their native languages. It’s an old favourite of Interpreting Studies debates that has now been picked up and debated on an interpreting blog. The control of the debate has now passed out of the hands of researchers and into the hands of the profession. And this is a good thing!

It is scientifically impossible to bounce a ball you are still holding. If you want a ball to make an impact, you have to let it leave your hand. Perhaps the same is true in research. Perhaps research can make its greatest impact when results and discussion are available for discussion in public arenas. Perhaps research has the greatest chance of making an impact when someone else, someone outside of academia sees it and decides to talk about it.

Again, bouncing ball research is not necessarily “better” or “more important” than vase-like research; it just behaves differently. One sits and expects readers to find it; the other actively goes in search of readers. One focusses on what other academics will think; the other gives weight to the views of people outside of academia too.

So what kind of research do you want to see?

Author: Jonathan Downie

Insign: Breaking new ground in video remote interpreting research

insign_logo

Pioneered in Sweden, both video remote interpreting (VRI) and video relay service (VRS) platforms use web-based video technology to enable Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing (HoH) sign language users to talk to (hearing) non-sign language users using their preferred language (i.e., a signed language) via an interpreter, either with the interpreter situated remotely and the deaf and hearing person together in the same room (VRI) or the deaf and hearing people in different locations with the interpreter in a call centre (VRS). VRI and VRS is increasing exponentially worldwide, and as a result there is a growing area of research that investigates communication through VRI and VRS from linguistic and sociological perspectives (e.g., Taylor, 2005, 2009; Quinto-Pozos et al., 2010; Brunson, 2011Napier & Leneham, 2011Alley, 2012; Napier, 2013).

Insign is a new pilot project that was launched in December 2013 to develop a web-based service platform, enabling European Deaf and HoH citizens to communicate independently and to contact their EU Institutions and MEPs. The platform (known as a Total Conversation platform) will offer the option of communicating via a sign language interpreter and/or real time captioning. The Insign project is funded through the DG Justice of the European Commission and is led by the European Union of the Deaf with a consortium of organisations from four European member states (Sign VideoIVèSefsliDesignit) and including BSL researchers in The Centre for Translation & Interpreting Studies Scotland at Heriot-Watt University.

The project methodology involves key stages to review existing VRI/ VRS practices, develop the platform, demonstrate and test the platform, and make recommendations to the DG Justice for future implementation. Heriot-Watt University’s role is to provide the research evaluation component of the project. The Principal Investigator is Prof Jemina Napier, working with Co-Investigator Prof Graham Turner, and Research Associate and experienced VRI interpreter Robert Skinner.

This project is breaking new ground in two ways:

(1) It is the first VRI/ VRS of its kind to provide access to deaf people in more than one spoken-signed language pair. All other services focus on national spoken and signed languages (e.g., English and British Sign Language in the UK). Insign, however, will involve the provision of 6 signed languages: British Sign Language, Dutch Sign Language, French Sign Language, Hungarian Sign Language, Spanish Sign Language, and International Sign; and 5 spoken languages: Dutch, English, French, Hungarian, Spanish.

(2) It is the first international research study that will have access to natural (not simulated) data of VRS calls between Deaf sign language users and hearing people, as well as data from surveys and interviews with Deaf people, interpreters and captioners/re-speakers.

The first stage of data collection has begun, with the launch of a survey questionnaire to collect views from Deaf sign language users, interpreters and re-speakers on general VRI/VRS service experiences and the need for a specific EU-based solution.

You can participate in the survey by clicking on one of the following links – depending on whether you are Deaf or HoH person, an interpreter, or a re-speaker. Each of the surveys is in English, and the survey for Deaf and HoH users is also available in International Sign (IS) with the option of having a follow-up conversation in IS by Skype.

The results of these questionnaires will feed into the development of the Insign service, which will be demonstrated and tested throughout the year. One of the key principles of this project is to involve the key stakeholders in informing the development of the service and to evaluate the feasibility and sustainability of such a multilingual service. This especially includes Deaf sign language users and sign language interpreters.

This is your opportunity for your ‘voice’ to be heard…

Authored by: Jemina Napier