Signs and wonders

Film-makers are discovering sign language - but, says David Nicholson, the deaf are still more seen than heard
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For the deaf signing community, accustomed to rare sightings of their language in films, the past few years have been a virtual feast.

Holly Hunter's Scottish bride used her own idiosyncratic signs in The Piano; Four Weddings and a Funeral had a deaf character charismatically played by deaf actor David Bower; Miracle on 34th Street had a young girl signing away to Uncle Dickie Attenborough as Santa Claus; and now we have Meryl Streep signing for dear life as she drifts along The River Wild (reviewed above).

Streep's character is not deaf, but she learnt to sign from her deaf father, and now puts it to shrewd use to outwit the thuggish villains keeping her and her family captive. This may be a convenient mechanism for the plot, but it also reflects the way that sign language is moving outside the deaf community and into the general consciousness.

Perversely, the deaf community itself has little access to such films. Occasionally a cinema will hold a "signed" performance, where interpreters stand on each side of the screen to relay the dialogue and sound effects. Otherwise, they must wait for the video release, and may find a "closed captioned" version to watch via their VCR and caption decoder (though even here, only selected titles are released). Finally, a film may reach TV, where teletext subtitles are now common. A further option is currently in development: having captions on cinema screens visible only through a special pair of glasses.

But deaf viewers are less likely, in any case, to go for worthy but slow- moving films where characters use sign language than for all-out-action thrillers. This is due in part to inept direction and acting. "Often the person signing is not clearly seen from the front or close up, so deaf people can't get the meaning of what's being said," says Michael Quinlan, who runs a video production unit at the British Deaf Association. He also blames cutting techniques which can render a signed phrase unintelligible. He suggests that film companies using sign language should employ a deaf sign monitor, to ensure the language is correct and generally comprehensible (there are significant local dialects).

What we have never really seen is sign language used to its full potential in movies. The rhythm, drama, power and grace of a signer going at full tilt is a marvellous sight, and entirely suited to the medium of film. Just as the voice uses pitch, volume and inflection to convey emotion and sense, signers use speed, exaggeration, and muscular control. At best, signing is a sort of upper-body dance, with every finger and facial element contributing to the overall meaning.

If a director could harness the full intensity of sign language, rather than making films aboutbarriers between deaf and hearing people (Children of a Lesser God), or even showing how normal and groovy deaf people can be (Four Weddings), then the deaf community would really have something to celebrate.