We've all heard the adage that there's "no business like show business" and how the lure of fame and expressing oneself artistically is like some uncontrollable urge, if I may quote from the book of Devo for a moment.
Likewise, we all know that there's a lot of unemployed actors, musicians and writers, all of whom seemingly work two or three menial jobs to pay the rent while they work and refine their dream, with the hope of making it big one day. It's a rocky road with no promises, full of personal hardships and emotional challenges. It's a tough path, to be sure.
In the 2010 documentary See What I'm Saying - available on DVD from the always reliable folks at Docurama - director Hilari Scarl covers that familiar topic, following four individuals each seeking their own level of expressive fame. But the wrinkle here is that in Scarl's doc all four of her subjects are deaf. We meet comic C.J Jones, performer Robert DeMayo, singer TL Forsberg and drummer Bob Hiltermann, with Scarl's camera following them on often very personal, heartbreaking revelations about the quest to perform.
Yet there's no pity party here for their deafness by Scarl - it's just a part of who they are - a sentiment that should be immediately clear to anyone who has experienced firsthand the deaf culture. And with a wife who works as a deaf interpreter in the school system I've been drawn into deaf culture, at least peripherally. There's great pride in the community, one with its own rich, expressive language. It only takes one time of being the only person NOT using sign language in a group of people who are to fully understand this impact.
Scarl, thankfully, doesn't pretend that these four are the greatest entertainers to ever live. They're dreamers with some talent. Hiltermann's wish is for his deaf rock band to reform and finally get to play live. It doesn't matter that he's in his late 50s - he just wants them to play. Once. Forsberg, who has struggled with her "not quite deaf enough to be deaf" degree of hearing loss yearns to be a rock star. Jones has a one-man show about his life that he wants to be seen outside the deaf community while DeMayo is an jack-of-all-trades actor, who in one of the film's funniest moments re-enacts the opening sequence from the animated film Ice Age.
Deafness or otherwise this is really just a story about four people trying to do their thing, and Scarl is rewarded with raw honesty from her subjects, who let the cameras catch them often at their worst or most defeated. We learn about their personal lives, see them on auditions, watch them rehearse and perform. And while this part of the journey will be fairly familiar to anyone who has watched or read pieces about struggling performers, what Scarl also brings is a bit of honest insight into the deaf community. While there are daily communication issues to be dealt with, she shows its vibrancy, its creativity, reminding us that deafness is perhaps not the soul-crushing hindrance that much of the hearing world thinks it is.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is clean, free of nicks or specking, with colors that appear natural. Director Hilari Scarl filmed under assorted lighting conditions (some controlled, some not) so there are times when the image quality fluctuates a bit, but certainly nothing unusual for a documentary. For some reason things get a bit uglier during the closing credits, when text is extremely fuzzy and difficult to read.
The film is presented in 2.0 stereo, with voices and conversations running the gamut of documentary quality, meaning sometimes the quality is better than others. No issues with hiss or distortion, and overall the presentation is solidly average. As a plus - given the theme of deafness - the entire film and the supplements are open-captioned in English.
As with most Docurama releases, much of the supplemental material is all essentially excised footage split into various categories, this time entitled of Additional Performances (:21m), Deleted Scenes (:16m), Interviews (:31m) and Bloopers (:05m). Highlights under Additional Performances include the full clip of Robert DeMayo's wonderfully expressive ASL version of the opening scene of Ice Age and a standup performance from deaf comedian Kathy Buckley at the See What I'm Saying world premiere. Deleted Scenes contains nine short clips (the longest is four minutes, but most are just a minute or two) with Bob Hiltermann's recollection of having a small part in the film Children of a Lesser God sadly charming. Interviews features a number of individuals not shown in the film, and of the five segments I'd recommend the piece with percussionist Evelyn Glennie, herself the subject of a beautiful documentary on deafness, music and performance called Touch The Sound. The Bloopers reel isn't so much the traditional "goofs" you get from a feature film, but instead are just clips that aren't necessarily polished as what's shown in the final film - nothing terribly funny or compelling here, in hindsight.
Also included is a colorful tell-a-story music video from the band Powder - using the track played over the closing credits, coverage of the film's world premiere in March 2010, and three trailers/teasers for See What I'm Saying.
The four likeable subjects featured in this doc are all struggling to get their big break in entertainment. Their deafness is seemingly secondary to their drive, determination, motivation in the face of rejection, and their collective story is endearing and quite moving at times. Did I get misty-eyed once or twice? Yes, I think I did.