In Conversation with Director Helen Gaynor
by Kirrilly Brentnall
Before making a film about two deaf teenagers, director Helen Gaynor had never met anyone from the Deaf community. The experienced film director speaks about confronting notions of difference and assumptions about being deaf, in discussing her latest film WELCOME 2 MY DEAF WORLD.
Through the story of two teenagers the audience witness the life of an average teenager. Exploring their desire to play football, relationships with girls, parental pressures, and facing decisions about life after school. The twist is - Scott and Bethany are deaf and their challenge is not only their transition into adulthood but also their transition from a sheltered deaf environment into the wider hearing world.
- Helen Gaynor, director of SBSI documentary WELCOME 2 MY DEAF WORLD
On being approached to direct this new documentary screening on SBS Television, Gaynor admits that the very fact that she knew no Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and had no contact with the Deaf community in Melbourne was the very thing that attracted her to the project in the first place. "I enjoy making documentaries about my own society and exploring lives that I have absolutely no knowledge of. I started out on this project like most audience members knowing nothing about Deaf Culture."
However, Gaynor did not anticipate how much of a challenge the film would be. It was not the Deafness that was the most difficult aspect but dealing with teenagers. "By the very nature of being adolescents, teenagers like to keep their personal lives secret - from parents, teachers and adults. The biggest challenge I had as a director was building up an intimacy with the teenagers. At times Scott and Bethany would be incredibly candid and spontaneous and alternatively they would just disappear and not return my text messages. Adolescents are incredibly unpredictable and it is simply a matter of going along with what is affecting them in their lives at the time."
The determined director persisted with Scott and Bethany to make a film that gets inside the heads of these two youngsters. Dedication to the story resulted in one night, the director and crew sleeping on the fold out bed at Scott's family's home just to get that shot of him being woken up by Mum at 4.30am.
The director's tenacity has paid off with some beautifully constructed and unguarded moments in the film, one stand out scene is when Bethany Rose, sitting in a busy city restaurant, philosophises on how she would behave if she was hearing, "I'm very friendly, I wish I could just go up to new people and make conversation, like "hi, how are you, where are you from?" and so on. Buy my hearing friends just don't do that. I tell them 'if I was you, I'd be doing that".
Building up a relationship with Scott and Bethany was further complicated by the necessity to work through an interpreter. Gaynor effuses gratitude and appreciation for Ntennis Davi, a filmmaker himself who has a long history with the Deaf Community and was on location to interpret and act as an intermediary between the director and her young film subjects. On other film projects Gaynor has had the flexibility to simply pick up the camera and film on her own, but this project required more intense logistical planning.
Shooting in an observational style also presented its own problems for Gaynor who did a lot of the camera work herself. "Normally a director uses verbal language to know when the best moments are unfolding, when to press the record button. In this case I had to work off my instincts, intuition and follow the emotional context of a scene rather than rely on normal language cues."
Working in another language was more confronting than originally anticipated. The workload in both the production and editing stage was increased ten-fold by needing every sign transcribed into English. As Gaynor comments, "When I took on this project, I didn't really know what I was up for. I didn't expect it to be so difficult. I've worked in other languages and with other cultures before but the pressures on this, needing everything translated made for an exhausting and intensive shoot and edit."
Over the course of filming, Gaynor came to the belief that the issues facing the Deaf community are similar to those facing any minority culture. For Gaynor and her young subjects, it is not about 'disability' as noted at the beginning of the film with Bethany's remarks, "Deaf people can do anything. Just like hearing people." The filmmaker's own preconceived notions of deafness were challenged as she came to realise that being deaf was about being 'different' rather than deafness being something that was disadvantageous. "It is an issue of difference that faces the Deaf Community, it is about their relationship to the world of sound being different to a hearing persons. The hearing world mistakenly view deafness as a disability and I think my film is successful in challenging this misconception."
Providing a glimpse into how a Deaf teenager experiences the world was one of Gaynor's major ambitions for the film. This is reflected in her decision to use subtitles rather than voice the characters. "Both Bethany and Scott have their own voices and can speak, it felt incredibly disrespectful to hire an actor to give another voice to them. What's more I wanted an audience to get a sense of what the experience is like and to gain an appreciation of the beauty of sign language."
Despite the great hurdles this film posed for the seasoned Director, it was a rewarding experience that came down to showing Deaf kids living their lives, perfectly normal kids apart from the fact that their relationship with world of sound is different. "Bethany and Scott are such wonderful, outgoing, vivacious, funny and communicative kids, that had stories to tell and that comes across in the film."
"In essence WELCOME 2 MY DEAF WORLD is a 'Coming of Age Story' with a twist as they are members of a minority culture that is little understood. They are two very normal young teenagers who experience life in different way. The opportunity to work with Bethany and Scott, to explore and explain their world to an audience is fantastic for a filmmaker."
- Helen Gaynor, director, WELCOME 2 MY DEAF WORLD, June 2005