Independent Lens: A Q&A with Director Judy Lieff

November 4th, 2011

Director Judy Lieff

Independent Lens caught up with director Judy Lieff, whose film Deaf Jam premieres this Sunday at 11 p.m. on THIRTEEN. Lieff offers some perspective on the challenges she faced making the film, plus some updates on what the people portrayed in the film have been up to since shooting wrapped.

Interview courtesy of Independent Lens. For more interviews and other Independent Lens film content, visit their blog.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I hope that this program will inspire and empower deaf youth and contribute to expanding social images of the deaf community. I also hope that the film will inspire anyone interested in poetry and literature to explore ASL poetry.

What led you to make this film?

While working as a visiting artist teaching video production to deaf high school students, I was introduced to the hidden practices of ASL poetry. Shortly thereafter, I was invited to attend a youth poetry slam, and it occurred to me that it would be fantastic to see deaf teens involved in this exploding movement. My research revealed that few, if any, deaf teens had ever been involved in the slam scene. Also, during my research, I met Liz Wolter, an ASL literature teacher at Lexington School for the Deaf who had been teaching single semester ASL poetry electives and video poetry projects with guest poets including poet guru, Bob Holman. Things just jettisoned from there, and I teamed up with City Lore, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of America’s living cultural heritage, to produce the documentary and raise funds to assist Liz in extending her electives to a full year.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

The issue of translation both for the dialogue and the poetry was the most challenging. ASL poetry is a totally different modality from written poetry. Many of the techniques involve spatial relationships as well as images and transitions that are visual and lose their power when translating into a written or spoken form. I chose to utilize animated graphics to approximate the translation. Regarding the dialogue — I had to shoot with two cameras most of the time in order to catch all the dialogue plus have an interpreter paired up with each camera operator so they knew what was being expressed. It was difficult keeping the sound of the interpreter off of the boom microphone even with if they were wearing a wireless mic. Given that we were shooting handheld and the nature of translating ASL, we did not have the option of putting the interpreter in another room with a monitor feed from the cameras. In some shooting situations, I had to lose the voice of the interpreter and translate the scene in post-production. In the end, I still had to transcribe all of the footage in post to get a more accurate read. In group situations it was impossible for interpreters to get all that was being said in the moment.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

Prior to starting the project, I had been teaching video to deaf students and had established relationships with some of the poetry mentors through various other small projects. So, I had a rudimentary understanding of ASL and was able to communicate on a basic level with the students. When I started working on Deaf Jam, I made a point to always have a camera with me and attend all of the workshops even though I knew I wasn’t going to use all the footage. The consistency of filming allowed the students to become quite comfortable being filmed. I also utilized my dance background and gave the students warm-up exercises which let me step away from “production mode” and gave the characters a chance to get to know a bit more about me. My dance background and comfort in communicating through gesture and motion augmented my signing skills.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

For the theatrical version of the film there were several fun scenes with Peter Cook that exhibited the cinematic concepts involved in ASL poetry that I wish I could have kept. However, I eventually decided that those scenes would be best included in the DVD extras or educational version of the film as they directly pertain to “how to make an ASL poem” and not the main character’s trajectory. For the broadcast version of the film, there were two scenes in particular that I would have liked to keep. One scene involves an isolated shot of one of Aneta’s classmates, Wanda, working on her first poem. The scene showcases the beauty of ASL poetry quite well and Wanda’s personality really comes through in the poetry. The other scene I would have liked to keep was a controversial discussion among the teachers in the famous Katz’s Deli about the future of ASL. In both instances, I had to ultimately remove them from the television version because they did not directly relate to Aneta’s story.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

There is a graduation party for Aneta’s classmates in the middle of the film that is shot by the students. In the scene Aneta, expresses her concerns about being left alone while all her friends go off to college. For deaf students, school life becomes your second family. Aneta and her peers had been attending Lexington since they were children. So the impact of separation for Aneta is profound.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

So far, people who have seen the film have fallen in love with Aneta and want to meet her. Also, many hearing folks who have seen the film have asked where they can take ASL classes. During the edit process, I consulted with Aneta on the translation of some of the scenes particularly her poetry scenes and the scenes with Shiran where the two are signing in Israeli sign language. Five of the characters in the film have seen the final version. I held a screening for Aneta’s family and friends and to my relief they were thrilled! Peter Cook, Dirksen Bauman, and Liz Wolter — three prominent subjects in the film and experts on ASL poetry applauded the results. Dirksen has been key to my outreach developments for the film with Gallaudet University.

What has happened with the people in the film since you finished it?

Aneta Brodski and Tahani Salah (Photo courtesy of Melissa Donovan)

Aneta Brodski – After graduating from Lexington, Aneta took a year off from school before enrolling part time at John Jay College and studying International Criminal Justice. While attending college, Aneta worked as a volunteer and activist for the organization Global Deaf Women. She is currently teaching American Sign Language in New York City in order to continue her education. This summer she was asked to create a poem for Cisco’s online technology news site and Summer Poetry Series.

Tahani Salah – Tahani graduated from Columbia University. She is currently serving as a youth outreach coordinator and member of the Word Wide Youth Leadership Board with Urban Word NYC. She is also a member of the Nuyorican Slam Team and author of the forthcoming book Respect The Mic. Tahani has been featured on HBO’s Def Poetry Jams.

Shiran Zhavian – Shiran graduated from Gallaudet University with a BS degree in chemistry. She was crowned Miss Deaf New York for 2009-2011 by the ESAD (Empire State Association of the Deaf). Currently, Shiran is in graduate school studying to be a pharmacist.

Liz Wolter – Liz continues to teach English and ASL literature at Lexington School for the Deaf. She is a contributor to the book Signing the Body Poetics.

Peter Cook – Peter is a full-time professor in ASL–English Interpretation at Columbia College in Chicago and is earning his Masters degree. He continues to travel internationally performing ASL poetry and stories.

Manny Hernandez – Manny lives in Washington D.C. with his wife and daughters. He travels internationally performing ASL stories and is on faculty at the Catholic University of America teaching ASL and is an adjunct professor at Gallaudet University.

Terrylene Sacchetti – Terrylene has founded a company called Clerc’s Children, Inc. It is a web-based dual language development curriculum and service for deaf and hard-of-hearing infants and toddlers.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

I’m inspired by the burgeoning film scene both online and in traditional settings. Seeing films and other works of art along with the act of creating new projects keeps me motivated. I also try to incorporate some form of creativity into every day even if it only involves a domestic chore.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

From the beginning, I thought that Public Television would be the ideal venue for Deaf Jam. The mission statement for public television calls for films that reflect underrepresented communities and express points of view seldom explored in popular media, and Deaf Jam satisfies this vision.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

What I did get done was become a parent during the making of Deaf Jam. But, between the making of the film and parenting I didn’t get anything else done.

What are your three favorite films?

This is a particularly tough question — I don’t really have favorites per se of any category – food, color, etc. My interests fluctuate according to circumstances. What I list today will most likely change tomorrow – but here goes:

The Great Dictator by Chaplin, Amarcord by Fellini, The Fog of War by Errol Morris

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Follow your instincts and your dreams. Stay focused and don’t be afraid of making mistakes.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

I would say that the most inspirational and metaphorical food for me would be – the preparation (not necessarily the consumption) of a dinner consisting of wild mushroom risotto accompanied by a full bodied dry red wine, a green salad comprised of local produce, and a sorbet with fresh fruit for dessert. I chose the risotto because the recipe I have is labor intensive but the results are delicious. I chose the salad because I think salads are fun to create. The sorbet clears your palate at the close of a meal and prepares you for the next consumption.