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Beyond Words is an Australian short thriller directed by Armand De Saint-Salvy, one of 16 finalists for Tropfest 2009. (Tropfest is the world’s largest short film festival, involving more than 600 filmmakers each year!)

The two main, unnamed characters in the film are a deaf woman [1] (Charlotte Gregg) and a blind man (Gyton Grantley). The film alternates between their perspectives, which makes for interesting (and probably not absolutely fantastic, but I’ll get to that) viewing/listening. During the deaf character’s parts, the sound adjusts to fit her perspective, and during the blind character’s parts, the visuals adjust to his.

Before we even get to the tension/conflict of the piece, there’s some really well done setting up of PWD perspective. We begin in a gym, in a yoga class that doesn’t really accommodate either of the main characters, so they follow the instructions as best they can. It’s a really lovely centring of PWD without a sledgehammer. As the class finishes up, he tries to talk to her but of course she doesn’t hear him: the motif of communication difficulties has expanded to fit the conflicting communication styles between PWD themselves. He tries to go after her, and the cutting between perspectives is such that we only learn later that this is because she has left her car keys. I quite like that the source of the drama at this stage isn’t a result of the usual dynamic of “brave PWD tries to cope! in an abled world on abled terms! the brave little soul!” Instead, we’ve got a difference in the needs, communication methods and experiences between PWD. We proceed entirely without reference to abled experience, which is pretty novel.

On the way to her car, the woman is grabbed by a man who wants to steal the car. As she scrabbles in her bag to find the keys that aren’t there, our friend from yoga comes by, hearing noises that sound like sounds of struggle. During the struggle, there’s rapid switching between their two perspectives. For me, as a sighted and hearing viewer/listener, it was a fabulous way to heighten tension, a very good climax. Doubtless for some people that would be very confusing or disorientating, which I guess goes to show a limit of the film’s translatability to, you know, actual disabled people. The attacker runs off soon after our main male character makes a noise (so to speak!). It never quite gets the feel of vulnerable woman saved by a man – for me personally, at any rate – maybe because her assailant runs off of his own accord, after the protests of both main characters.

After the attacker runs off, the sound and visuals change again: we’ve got a gelling of the two perspectives, with sound and vision both coming on in a conventional film sort of way. Which is all good with the inter-disability harmony in a way and more accessible for sure. I’m also feeling slightly disappointed about this stage of the film because resolution and harmony seem to equal moving beyond a disabled perspective. That is, resolution comes with film techniques more aligned with an abled perspective. So: here the two find a way to communicate, with the woman speaking verbally, asking the man to show her his lips so she can lip read. They walk back to the gym to get her car keys, the end.

I must admit that I am wanting a yay!disability message here. There are messages other than “we have different experiences of the world, and now we are banding together” to be gained from this film. I am bothered, for example, by the idea that it is entirely possible to read this as “man tries to get attention of woman, who is then punished for not paying attention”.

And then. I know Gyton Grantley isn’t blind, and I’m pretty sure Charlotte Gregg isn’t deaf. (Not because I’ve got any particular evidence of her being hearing, more because I can’t find references to her deafness, which I think would have been emphasized in most references to her I could find!) I think they both do a pretty good job, but it would of course be nice if more disabled people featured in films. On the upside, they actually had consultants on the film, the deaf consultants being Caroline Conlon and Richard Aarden and the blind consultant Zak Nikolic.

I’d also be interested as to how accessible this film is. I myself have a promotional/freebie version from the paper which isn’t very. I’m sure it’d be quite disorienting to some PWD, and I’m wondering about subtitling and such in any official DVD releases and how the film was displayed at Tropfest itself. After all, positive messages about disability oughtn’t to just be for the reassurance of the abled folk!

It’s quite a good film, so do give it a go if you can.

[1] The film doesn’t make it clear whether the character prefers deaf or Deaf; I’m thinking deaf is the most appropriate usage for the purposes of this review and within context, which is why I’ve used it.

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