Filmmaking | How To's

Sight Unseen

1 Jan , 2003  

Written by Asa Pittman | Posted by:

A new documentary from writing-producing team, Myles Gordon and Susan Hajjar, introduces audiences to a little-known community in Boston’s melting pot of diversity: the deaf-blind.

"Imagine a world without sound… Imagine a world without sight… Now put those two worlds together," begins the documentary "Touching Lives: Portraits of Deaf-Blind People." Narrated by deaf-blind advocate, Susan Hajjar, who wrote and produced the film with Myles Gordon, "Touching Lives" invites hearing-sighted audiences to share the experiences of members one of the most mysterious and misunderstood cultures in Boston — the culture of the hearing and vision impaired. The breakthrough documentary makes a fitting premiere January 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts, the very place Hajjar and Gordon met and conceived the film five years ago.

The MFA screening of Laurel Chiten’s documentary, "The Jew in the Lotus," inspired Myles Gordon, a veteran producer at Channel Five’s "Chronicle," to make "Touching Lives," his first independent film. "I turned to my wife and said, ‘I want to make a film like that,’" recalled Gordon. "She pointed across the aisle at Susan [Hajjar]."

Gordon’s wife, an American Sign Language Interpreter who had worked with Hajjar, introduced the aspiring filmmakers during the reception for Chiten’s film. The proposed collaboration was a dream come true for Hajjar: "I’d had in my mind to do a movie about deaf-blind people for many years." She had even attempted to make the movie herself. "I’d brought a video camera to the convention of the American Association of the Deaf-Blind 15 years ago and tried to interview deaf-blind people," said Hajjar, "But I didn’t have the skills or the manpower to shoot the film by myself."

Having found a capable partner with a mutual vision for the project, Gordon and Hajjar concentrated on raising money and acquiring subjects for their documentary. The first $1,000 donated from friends and family paid for a beta crew. Funds from the Boston Foundation provided the partners with enough capital to start filming.

Gordon and Hajjar believed that in comparison to finding funds for the film, coming up with subjects would be easy. "My partner knows everybody," said Gordon. A co-founder of the Deaf-blind Contact Center in Boston, Hajjar has championed deaf-blind causes for over 20 years. "I know just about every deaf-blind person in Massachusetts," she confirmed, "it’s a small community."

Hajjar’s ties to the deaf-blind community, however, run deeper than the professional level. Three of Hajjar’s four siblings are deaf-blind, afflicted with Usher’s Syndrome I, a genetic disorder which causes childhood deafness that is compounded with blindness in the adult years. Hajjar had hoped to feature her siblings in the film, but they refused to be interviewed. "At first I was angry [about their refusal to be interviewed]," Hajjar narrates over a segment of "Touching Lives" composed of clips from her family’s home movies, "but now I understand."

Soliciting the help of various deaf-blind friends and associates throughout New England to make the film, Gordon and Hajjar’s documentary is a testimony to the diversity within the deaf-blind community. "The people in the film are all very different," Gordon said. The variety in subjects and perspectives was intentional, revealed Hajjar. "I wanted a representation of male and female. I wanted to show the different types of communication the deaf-blind use, and the range [of severity] of their disability." To access a cross-section of the deaf-blind community, Hajjar returned to her original idea — she and Gordon traveled to Connecticut and interviewed attendees of the 1998 Convention of the American Association of the Deaf-Blind.

Writing a script, finding subjects and selecting the venues for the scenes themselves, Gordon and Hajjar decided to leave the filming to someone else. "We didn’t want to have to worry if it was being shot properly," Hajjar explained. Chiefly concerning themselves with the content of the film, Gordon and Hajjar hired videographer and editor, Kathleen Wittman, to handle the production of the project. For additional help with financial matters, they turned to non-profit organization, The Center for Independent Documentary. "They became our partners and took care of all the paperwork," Gordon said.

While the production of the documentary was a collaborative effort, Gordon and Hajjar stress that the stars of "Touching Lives" are the deaf-blind citizens that willingly exposed their lives to the scrutiny of hearing-sighted strangers. Hajjar contends that although she co-wrote the film, her main role in the project was that of an interpreter, not a spokesperson. "I’m not speaking out for the deaf-blind," she said, "I’m speaking out with them." Gordon concurred with Hajjar’s sentiment: "As much as possible we got [the participants] to tell us their own story."

To allow their subjects to speak for themselves, Gordon and Hajjar innovated ways to bridge a schism of communication challenges. "You can’t just call someone on the phone who can’t hear," Gordon quipped. Gordon, who interviewed the subjects of the film, is neither deaf nor blind, and cannot read a signing language, the chief form of communication of the deaf-blind. "I would ask questions," he said, "which an interpreter would sign into the interviewee’s hand. The interviewee would then sign a response back into the interpreter’s hand."

Instead of having the interpreter speak or "voice" the interviewee’s message, however, the filmmakers devised a method to preserve the essence of the exchange. "We wanted to record the sound of the signing, so we had a second camera capture the signing on video," Gordon said. "A second interpreter watched the signing video on a monitor in another room, and spoke the responses into a microphone cable connected to an earpiece I had on my ear." The purpose of the complicated relay system was for both artistic and practical reasons: "Sometimes the initial interpretation isn’t so good," Gordon explained.

Though communicating with the deaf-blind can be daunting for those unskilled in sign language, it is not impossible and worth the effort, the filmmakers emphasize. "I learned a lot about different forms of deaf-blindness," Gordon said of working with the deaf-blind community. He also learned a lot about himself. "[Working on "Touching Lives"] helped to put my life into perspective… to realize that problems aren’t so insurmountable." For Hajjar, "Touching Lives" reaffirmed "a perception of the beauty and dignity in the deaf-blind community." It is this perception, she said, she aspires to impart to mainstream audiences through the film.

Gordon and Hajjar want their documentary not only to change the way society thinks of the deaf-blind, but also the way it interacts with the deaf-blind community. "Loneliness and isolation are big problems among the deaf-blind," said Hajjar. Increased public support of resources for the deaf-blind, the filmmakers suggest, would demarginalize the deaf-blind community, thus alleviating isolation issues.

"We want people who watch the film to become aware of, and support funding for equipment, interpreters, aids and grass root organizations that help the deaf-blind," said Gordon. Hajjar hopes this awareness materializes as help for her grass root organization, the Deaf-Blind Contact Center. "There needs to be more services for the deaf-blind, and those services need to be centralized," said Hajjar. "I want that center to be the Deaf-Blind Contact Center."

The "Touching Lives" premiere at the MFA Jan. 9 will be the first of what Gordon and Hajjar hope will be many opportunities for their film to educate and orient the public to the deaf-blind. "We hope to make the film available in schools, hospitals and libraries," said Hajjar of future plans for the film. The filmmakers have also submitted "Touching Lives" to the New England Film and Video Festival. Close-captioning and visual descriptions for the hearing and vision impaired were added to the film to further increase the documentary’s accessibility.

For the premiere, Braille and large print transcriptions of the script will be made available, and each deaf-blind attendee will be assigned two interpreters. The filmmakers envision the event to be a microcosm of what they hope their film will inspire on a societal level: collaboration between the hearing-seeing and the deaf-blind. Exposure to not only deaf-blind causes, but to the deaf-blind themselves, is the key to demystification and inclusion of the deaf-blind said Hajjar.