I have written about documentaries concerning the Deaf community before - both here and elsewhere - and my interest in the subject stems from my wife's career as a Deaf interpreter for a local co-op. Prior to her work with the Deaf my knowledge and exposure was limited, and if anything I always had a profound sense of sadness for those without hearing, considering how essential the joy of sound is to me.
That was my first ignorant mistake.
Because if I have learned one thing that I did not know before it is that the Deaf community is exceptionally proud, independent and resilient, and that pity from the likes of me is not something they're looking for. Over the years I've been educated and inspired, via my wife's work as well as through a number of outstanding documentaries on the subject (Josh Aronson's Sound and Fury is one of those) and I have to come to have more of an understanding of the inner workings of those unable to hear.
Or at least as much as I can, that is.
That brings us to Kino International's release of the 1992 French documentary In The Land of the Deaf (Le Pays des Sourds), directed by Nicolas Philibert. Perhaps it is because I have seen stronger docs on the Deaf, but the backcover promise of "an engrossing, eye-opening experience" did not present itself to me. In what is essentially a collection of narrative-free segments highlighting a multitude of people in the French Deaf community, Philibert biggest sidestep is that he does little to draw the viewer into what is occurring onscreen. It's not just the lack of narration or even simple title cards - certainly there have been countless docs that adopted this format with great success - it's that Philibert's film seems disjointed or unstructured or even properly edited, which then prevented me being drawn into the subjects. And I don't believe it's an issue of stylish European filmmaking either, so don't go down that road. This is a dull presentation of a rich, vibrant topic.
Even with Philibert's generally lackluster presentation that's not to say that there are not the occasional quality moment to mined from In The Land of the Deaf (Le Pays des Sourds), but most of those come from the subjects speaking to the camera (in French Sign Language), describing their Deaf lives. Those are endearing, heartfelt sequences that the give this doc its emotional center, whereas the rest of the time is spent with on-location footage, such as a classroom, where the viewer is left to absorb meandering scenes that appear to go on too long. I understand the Philibert is attempting to show the lives of the Deaf as is - putting us into their daily existence - and though he does succeed at times there is a greater sense that his film could have been more tightly edited and structured. Without a narrative voice that viewers can connect with the subject matter is irrelevant.
I don't often find myself looking at the clock during a film, and I know when I do that's a bad sign. Case in point with In The Land of the Deaf (Le Pays des Sourds). Philibert's doc runs 99 minutes and once I got a flavor of his "just let my camera run" filmmaking approach I knew it was going to be a loooong 99 minutes, too. That's unfortunate and sad for the subjects here, all of whom have personal stories to tell that are worth being told. It's just that Philibert had difficulty allowing that to occur.
Kino International has issued Philibert's doc in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. The transfer does not appear to have gone through any sort of restoration process, and there are frequent sprocket marks, nicks, specks and other debris to contend with. Overall color palette is murky and drab, while image quality is burdened with soft, hazy edges and an absence of any sense of edge detail. A very bland and more importantly a wholly uninspiring transfer.
Audio is presented in 2.0 French mono, though in fairness the film is shown narration free in French Sign Language with optional English subtitles. There are a few individuals (teachers, parents) who speak in French in or around the principal Deaf subjects, but the core of the doc is appropriately silent. As a result, any discussion of the audio track is essentially a non-issue for this feature.
There are no extras on this disc.
Despite making wonderful points about the pride and independence of the Deaf community the 1992 French doc In The Land of the Deaf (Le Pays des Sourds) lacks a structured cohesive narrative quality that forces this to often become tedious and dull.
I was expecting to embrace this film, and in the end it found it disappointing.