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Seattle Deaf Film Festival Comes to UW

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Can you remember the last time you watched a film featuring deaf actors? Can you name a film director who is deaf? Or a film in which deaf culture figures prominently? 

Probably not. But the Seattle Deaf Film Festival, to be held at the UW from March 30 through April 1, hopes to change that. The festival—the first of its kind in the Northwest—is presented by Deaf Spotlight, a non-profit that focuses on the culture and creativity of the deaf community. The event is sponsored by the UW’s ASL (American Sign Language) and Deaf Studies Program, part of the Department of Linguistics. 

Film poster

“Our program aims to create awareness of deaf culture,” says Lance Forshay, lecturer and coordinator of the ASL and Deaf Studies Program. “This festival is an opportunity to do that. The event is independent of the ASL program, but by hosting we show our support.”

Audiences can expect to see films created by, for, or about the deaf community, in genres ranging from documentary to drama to comedy to animation. Feature films and shorts have been submitted from the U.S., England, France, Thailand, South Korea, the Philippines, South Africa, and Mexico. All films will have subtitles, including subtitled translations when the actors sign rather than speak. “That’s for the sign language impaired,” jokes Forshay. 

Rob Roth, chair of Deaf Spotlight’s board and a Computer Science and Engineering staffer at the UW, has been involved in every aspect of the festival, including reviewing more than 70 film submissions. As part of a seven-member committee, he is selecting the films for the three-day event. “We’re considering the deaf culture aspect of the film—the use of deaf actors, a deaf storyline—but also looking at technical aspects and the quality of the script, taking into account what would interest audiences.” Films selected so far range from an unsettling South Korean drama about abuse to a lighthearted animated film about three deaf mice. 

Forshay anticipates that many of his ASL students, required to have five or more hours of contact with the deaf community each quarter, will fulfill that requirement by attending the festival. And if they bring their non-ASL friends along? All the better, says Forshay. “Having that sort of exposure is very valuable,” he says. “Films are powerful. We might be able to open people’s eyes a bit.” 

Roth agrees, offering the example of a festival film about a deaf Holocaust survivor. “People don’t think about deaf people surviving the Holocaust,” he says. “Now they will.” Adds Forshay, “There are many gaping holes like that in our study of history and our study of the world. We’d like to fill in some of those gaps where deaf people have not been included.”

A film enthusiast himself, Forshay is encouraged by the increasing presence of deaf people in the film industry. He still remembers seeing the 1975 film Deafula, a vampire film done completely in American Sign Language, as a child. “I was wowed by it,” he recalls. 

Here’s hoping the Seattle Deaf Film Festival will have a similar effect on other viewers. Vampires need not apply.