An outstanding documentary exploration of the travails of four deaf entertainers, Hilari Scarl’s “See What I’m Saying” provides a glimpse into a performance circuit that few hearing-enabled Americans likely realize exists. Rather than a disability, deafness begins to seem almost an entry fee into a singular subculture with celebrities, traditions and prejudices all its own, and this community’s actors and artists face troubles that are both familiar and fascinatingly strange. Well-made docu should have little difficulty finding a receptive audience at fests and on homevid.
Flying along with a snappy pace and sharp comic timing, the film follows four highly distinctive performers. Standup comic CJ Jones is a major figure on the deaf entertainment circuit but can’t get arrested at mainstream comedy festivals; Robert DeMayo is an HIV-positive actor who sometimes sleeps on park benches in between teaching classes at Juilliard; Bob Hiltermann is a wild-man drummer for all-deaf rock band Beethoven’s Nightmare; and TL Forsberg is an Amy Lee-style singer and actress who feels ostracized from the community due to being only “hard of hearing.”
Their travails are often revelatory, and the notion that some hearing-impaired people are seen as “not deaf enough” seems particularly twisted, with Forsberg criticized by a purist after performing in “Children of a Lesser God.” Comic Jones is also fascinating to watch; although his jokes (like all the film’s dialogue) are subtitled, it’s obvious that the heart of his comedy is in the timing of his sign language.
The film has moments of hysterical humor — an attempted signed exchange about the Beatles and the British Invasion ends up translating as “roach infestation” — and a climactic Beethoven’s Nightmare concert at Los Angeles’ El Rey Theater (their first in a big-time venue) is understatedly triumphant. Technical contributions are all effective, though particular plaudits must go to the film’s astute editing and, ironically, a charming musical score.
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The documentary follows four deaf entertainers: a comic, a drummer, an actor and a singer as they triumph over personal obstacles and celebrate professional landmarks.
SEE WHAT I'M SAYING follows the journeys of four deaf entertainers through a single year as their stories intertwine and cumulate in some of the largest events of their lives. Bob, a drummer in the world's only deaf rock band Beethoven's Nightmare, produces the largest show in the band's 30 year history; CJ, a comic famous around the world but unknown to hearing people fights to cross over to mainstream audiences by producing the first international sign language theatre festival in Los Angeles; Robert, a brilliant actor who teaches at Juilliard struggles to survive when he becomes homeless; and TL, a hard of hearing singer is caught between two worlds when she produces her first CD "Not Deaf Enough." The documentary is the first American film to be fully subtitled for the country's 30 million deaf and hard of hearing and to open the door into deaf culture for those who are "signing-impaired."
Deaf people can do anything but hear. But an all deaf rock band? An international deaf comic famous around the world but unknown to hearing people? A modern day Buster Keaton who teaches at Juilliard but is currently homeless? A hard of hearing singer who is considered "not deaf enough?"
SEE WHAT I'M SAYING follows the journeys of four extraordinary deaf entertainers over the course of a single year as their stories intertwine and culminate in some of the most important events of their lives:
Robert DeMayo, actor
The extraordinarily talented and optimistic Robert DeMayo is a brilliant actor and one of the leading experts on translating English into American Sign Language. He is also homeless. While teaching sign language translation to Broadway interpreters at Juilliard, a miscommunication with Robert's landlord leads him down a slippery slope of couch surfing, and ultimately onto the streets, as he fights to survive.
Bob Hiltermann, drummer
Beethoven's Nightmare, the world's only deaf rock band, gears up for the most important gig of their lives: their first mainstream show. Bob Hiltermann, the band's drummer/producer decides to go for broke and produce the largest concert in the band's 30-year history.
CJ Jones, comic
CJ Jones is a deaf comic who is highly celebrated by the deaf community. He strives to cross over to mainstream media, plagued by what others view as a double whammy - being black and deaf. CJ's journey takes a unique turn when he decides to produce the first International Sign Language Theatre Festival in Los Angeles and invites Robert DeMayo to perform.
TL Forsberg, singer
Hard of hearing singer TL Forsberg straddles two worlds - that of the deaf and that of the hearing. She struggles to be accepted by the deaf community since because she is not a native sign language user, and "passes" in the hearing world. Her passion leads her to a recording deal to produce her first CD, entitled "Not Deaf Enough," but things take a surprising twist when she opens for Bob's deaf rock band, Beethoven's Nightmare.
SEE WHAT I'M SAYING is the first American film to be fully subtitled for the country's 30 million deaf and hard of hearing viewers and opens the door into deaf culture for those who are signing-impaired.
Deaf culture is unique. Out of the nearly 30 million deaf and hard of hearing Americans, only 10% have a parent who is deaf, making deaf culture one of the only heritages in the world that is rarely handed down from parents to children. Deaf culture is composed of a community of people who consider deafness to be a difference in human experience rather than a disability. There are deaf entertainers within the community who perform mostly for deaf audiences, many of whom are trying to cross over to the mainstream. This film is about four of those entertainers.
SEE WHAT I'M SAYING is a powerful and unique look at deaf entertainers that touches on the human nature of these unsung artists. Its universal appeal transcends the four intertwined stories, allowing audiences to peek inside deaf culture and see this vibrant community in a fascinating new light. The humor and the pathos are eloquently supported by Kubilay Üner's soaring score and guided by director/producer Hilari Scarl's unique vision.
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[Note: When "Deaf" is capitalized in Deaf culture, it refers to those who use sign language, have a Deaf identity and are culturally Deaf vs. "deaf" people who have a hearing loss but do not identify with the Deaf community.]
The first question people ask me is how I learned sign language. When hearing people ask that question, it is usually because they think I have a family member who is Deaf. When Deaf people ask me that question, it is to often to determine whether I have ulterior motives. Neither assumption is true. My first introduction to Deaf culture was a performance at New York Deaf Theatre of "'night, Mother" that changed my life. Having been in theatre my entire life and experiencing almost every form of theatre from Kabuki to Shakespeare, I had never seen anything like it. The performances came to life with a visceral impact that was visually and emotionally powerful, translated simultaneous by unseen voicing actors. I was hooked. After taking one sign language class and living with a Deaf roommate in New York, I auditioned for the Tony-award winning National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) and was cast as a voicing actor. It was a yearlong tour with some of the most extraordinarily talented performers I had ever known. The cast included Anthony Natale who was cast that year in "Mr. Holland's Opus," Frank Dattolo who went on to become the artistic director of New York Deaf Theatre, and Robert DeMayo who 12 years later became one of the lead subjects of See What I'm Saying. My total immersion into Deaf culture wasn't easy. I was a minority on a tour with 17 Deaf actors, who lived in a world with a unique bond that I couldn't share. I was tested in numerous ways. Trust was slowly built as we transformed from peers into friends. After a year of sharing their lives and their world, I began to understand. I watched the blistering gap between them and the hearing world in our everyday interactions. I witnessed indifference in restaurants and life as a deaf person on the road. I heard stories about their lives that inspired me to do better. At the end of the tour, I moved to Los Angeles with the desire to explain my experience with the hearing world. I wanted others to see these talented actors as I saw them, and for them to know my friends whom I grew to love.
MY HOPE - MY MESSAGE
My message is simple, and echoes I. King Jordan's famous words "Deaf people can do anything except hear." My advocacy is two-fold: to create more opportunities for Deaf performers everywhere based on their talent rather than their hearing loss. This involves hearing writers working with deaf writers to develop a more accurate depiction of the real people and scenarios of Deaf culture rather than the old cochlear implant controversy, and for casting directors and producers to hire more deaf actors in roles that aren't written as "deaf roles." My second mission is to create awareness for the need for quality captions for all media - film, television and on the internet. We take for granted the accessibility that captions provide, and the need is grossly underestimated.
Lastly, I would like for the film to spread the message that being Deaf is not a handicap, and that Deaf culture is a vibrantly rich celebration filled with creative, intelligent and inspired human beings who share the same dreams and aspirations as anyone else. I hope that you see what they are saying.
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Hilari Scarl, Director/Producer
Hilari is an award-winning director who was selected out of 12,000 filmmakers to appear on the Steven Spielberg television series ON THE LOT. She received outstanding reviews from judges Garry Marshall, Carrie Fisher, Jon Avnet and Brett Ratner on her short comedy DITTO and for her overall strength in working with actors.
Hilari has produced TV shows for CBS, The History Channel, TLC and Court TV. She directed/produced over 12 short films in two years, including the short documentary PAVING THE WAY which was a finalist for International Documentary Challenge, played the film festival circuit and was acquired by Current TV. Her narrative short SNIPS & SNAILS is a horror spoof that she directed, co-wrote and co-produced with Gary Anthony Williams. The film won the Audience Award at the Los Angeles Dances With Films festival (Laemmle's Sunset 5 in Hollywood) and screened at film festivals around the world.
Hilari's interest in the deaf community began in 1992 when she started working in deaf theatre. She has spent the past 16 years working with the deaf community as a director, performer and educator with the Tony Award winning National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD), the Deaf Arts Council, New York Deaf Theatre and Deaf West. She brings her intimate knowledge of deaf culture, personal friendships within the deaf community and signing skills to this documentary.
Jeff Gatesman, Cinematographer
Originally from Chicago, Jeff received a degree in journalism at Triton College where he was introduced to world cinema and documentary filmmaking. He later received a degree in film production from Columbia College and studied photography at the prestigious Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.
In Chicago, Jeff worked on independent feature films while he was employed by television shows including THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW, ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT and TRUE STORIES OF THE HIGHWAY PATROL. He relocated to Los Angeles where he first found employment as a gaffer, working alongside world-class cinematographers Dante Spinotti, Vilmos Zsigmond, and Dean Semmler.
Jeff's cinematography credits include feature length films, commercials and music videos as well as the television cooking show FEEDING THE FIRE. He produced, directed and filmed the award-winning feature documentary AMAZONAS: THE TEARS OF A FULL MOON, which is currently in distribution worldwide. His documentary cinematography credits include BEYOND BLACK ELK: THE ORAL HISTORY OF THE LAKOTA SIOUX; TURNING: THE WHIRLING DERVISHES OF TURKEY; IT'S AWRIGHT, a short doc on the aging Bluesmen of Phoenix, and the pilot episode for ODYSSEY'S AND OVATIONS, a travel program dedicated to uncovering the art of different cultures around the world. Narrative cinematography credits include THE LAWN RANGERS and TALKING MOVIE, SILENT LIFE about writer Chris Harmon, a deaf blind man with no motor skills or ability to breathe on his own.
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Marcus Taylor, Editor
Marcus has edited at DreamWorks Studios on big budget feature films including FLUSHED AWAY, MADAGASCAR, SHARK TALE, SINBAD, THE PRINCE OF EGYPT, AN AMERICAN TAIL: FIEVEL GOES WEST. A native of the U.K., Marcus first started working on television documentaries and dramas in Manchester. After working on a number of BBC, Granada TV and independent programs, he moved to Cosgrove Hall productions to work on various award-winning TV animation series such as DANGERMOUSE , COUNT DUCKULA and THE RELUCTANT DRAGON, which won the BAFTA for Best Children's award. Marcus' association with Steven Spielberg's Amblimation company and DreamWorks has lasted over 17 years. During his time in London, he moved into features and saw the change from film to AVID-based editing. Embracing this new direction, Marcus was involved in the AVID USERS GROUP in London and wrote articles for their trade publication. His latest credits include SHREK: THE HALLS (a Xmas TV special), Jerry Seinfeld's BEE MOVIE and the short film FIRST FLIGHT. He was lead editor on FIRST FLIGHT (produced by DreamWorks Animation), which won the Montgomery Prize - Certificate of Excellence at Chicago's International Children's Film Festival and was nominated for first prize at the Montreal World Film Festival. He also has worked with Simon Wells, the director of THE TIME MACHINE, on creating storyboard animatics for that movie. Marcus edited DUCK, the live action feature film starring Philip Baker Hall (ZODIAC/BRUCE ALMIGHTY/MAGNOLIA) which opened in August 2007. DUCK won at the Denver International Film Festival, Cinequest and European Independent Film festival and has been shown in numerous festivals around the world.
Kubilay Üner, Composer
Munich-born, Los Angeles-based composer Kubilay "Kubi" Üner has bounced around the planet and through every musical genre, which explains a thing or two about his individual approach to music. With numerous feature film scores, TV pilots and concert music works to his credit, Kubi is as comfortable in the concert hall as he is on the dubbing stage. "Whether the music is part of a film or stands on its own, my goal is to deliver an intense experience, one that completely immerses and transforms the listener. I believe a good piece of music should take you on a journey."
This idea was at the core of FILM2MUSIC, an international competition where Kubi invited filmmakers the world over to create a film to a track from his CD, CINEMATIC. Ninety-four films were submitted, and the winners and highlights were screened at the 2007 Sundance Film festival.
In addition to writing for concert, theatre and film, Kubi has acted as a record producer and arranger for a multitude of artists, from soul legend Bobby Womack to Mexican-American chanteuse Perla Batalla.
Active in the Los Angeles contemporary music scene, he has run a series of composer salons since 2001, with presenters including Randy Newman to Mort Subotnick, Chris Young, Anne LeBaron and William Kraft among many others. These stylistically diverse salons are yet another expression of Kubi's conviction that "good music can only happen when you mix things up."
Kubi studied composition with Johannes Fritsch and Klarenz Barlow at the State Academy of Music in Cologne, Germany; with Luigi Nono at the Centre Acanthes workshops in France; and with Mort Subotnick, Fredric Rzewski and James Newton at CalArts. He earned his master's degree in 1991, and now works as a freelance composer and producer in Los Angeles.
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Production Notesby Director/Producer Hilari Scarl
In 2007, I was chosen by Steven Spielberg out of 12,000 filmmakers to be on his television show and had my 15 minutes of fame ON THE LOT. After making it to the top 21, I asked everyone who was going to vote for me 20 times to send me $20 to make this documentary. I managed to raise $8,000 over a single summer to begin filming. Luckily, several supportive investors came on board during production and post production, as well as a grant from the Arnold Glassman Fund and sponsorship from Microsoft. Since I knew I wanted the film to be as verité as possible with a strong story, I checked in with a dozen of my friends and colleagues to see who had events planned for the year. I had met CJ Jones when I first arrived in Los Angeles and we became close friends. I knew he was planning some large events that would be unique to follow. To know CJ is to love him, and it was time for the rest of the world to know him as well. CJ introduced me to TL during a performance and I was instantly intrigued by her story. And when Bob told me he was planning the largest Beethoven's Nightmare show in 30 years, I knew I had a great arc to follow. [SPOILER ALERT.] I found out that Robert was homeless, sleeping on park benches in Philadelphia days before he was scheduled to leave for New York to teach at Juilliard, and I immediately grabbed a camera and flew on a kind friend's frequent flyer miles out to Philadelphia to find out what was going on. Robert's story blew me away and I knew I had to film it.
I never had a casting session or a pre-set number of documentary subjects in mind. On any given year I could have chosen other entertainers, and I hope the film brings home the point that there are dozens of other extremely talented unsung deaf entertainers. I followed a few other extraordinary entertainers during our filming including Shoshannah Stern, Michelle Banks and Anthony Natale whom I hope to feature heavily in our DVD extras.
Filming was extremely challenging. As we followed our busy entertainers, we ended up filming over 50 deaf entertainers in over 12 cities throughout the United States and overseas. Invitations to perform, auditions and life-altering situations kept arising, keeping us scrambling and booking two and sometimes three different crews at a time. But the perks of filming in sign language were unique as well. I could hold interviews in noisy places and dump my audio (which happened at least twice) since the film is captioned. People didn't ask us to move along since they couldn't figure out what we were doing. The best perk was being able to interject questions in sign language without blowing a sound bite.
Our post production was unique since to our knowledge nothing like this had ever been done before. Three different interpreters rotated in and out of the editing bay laying down temporary audio voice over for my hearing editor as I transcribed over 700 pages of 300 hours of footage. It took six months of working nearly 80 hours a week to produce four complete storylines of each of our major subjects, and another three months to weave the stories together. Our temp interpreter audio track was replaced by subtitles that took weeks to fine tune by ASL Master James Foster during the formal translation process.
The score and the sound design were incredibly fun, as my longtime composer Kubilay Uner recorded the snaps, clicks and slaps of sign language to fully incorporate into his completely organic and inspired score. Our post production sound supervisor, Joe Milner, quizzed Robert meticulously to accurately depict how things sound from his point of view. I would like to point out that it was Robert DeMayo who came up with the signed translation for "See What I'm Saying" that was seconded by CJ Jones. The literal translation in sign language is "understand what I'm saying" and the play on the word "see" (get what I'm saying and to visually see the language) is meant to be a double entendre only in English.
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