Film Festival Diary: two films about family and deaf culture

This is a still from the movie The Shattered Mind, where a woman is standing sideways. Her hands are crossed over her chest and she has an explanation of fear, disbelief, anger, and sadness. In the background there is smoke.

This is the first of a series of posts on films shown at the First International Film Festival for Persons with Disabilities. The Festival, recently held in New Delhi, was presented by the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment in collaboration with the National Film Development Corporation of India.

There were a number of special screenings that played to packed auditoriums at the First International Film Festival for Persons with Disabilities, including Kabir Khan’s Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and Meghna Gulzar’s documentary Closer. Alongside these, there were a number of shorter films that quietly held their own, introducing Delhi’s audiences to nuances in the lives of people with disabilities that we may not have encountered before.

Two of these films were about deafness. The Shattered Mind, written and directed by Ann Marie Bryan, and CODA, by Melissa Mostyn, are both family dramas centered on mother-daughter relationships. There’s where the similarities end.

The Shattered Mind, inspired by true events in Ann Marie Bryan’s own life, tells the story of Zhane Rain, a young woman who lives with her loving and chaotic deaf African-American family. Zhane, who is otherwise cheerful and well-adjusted, struggles almost every night with terrible dreams that severely impact the quality of her life. The nightmares, coupled with small hints from her brother and aunt that something terrible happened to her as a child, lead her to look for the cause of her trauma.

Zhane and members of her family who think she should know the truth come up against her protective mother who worries that the truth will break Zhane. As the film puts the jigsaw puzzles of Zhane’s past together piece by piece, the denouement reveals the source of Zhane’s nightmares: an accident that almost killed Zhane, and took her hearing. The film is superbly acted, with a lively ensemble cast, and a story that explores many different facets of the family members’ relationships to each other.

There is a pivotal scene where one confession from a member of the family over a meal leads to multiple confessions: Zhane’s aunt reveals that the woman she’s living with is her lover, and her sister reveals that she’s dating a white man. All of these conversations happen in ASL (American Sign Language). Subtitles are provided for audience members who don’t sign, although the film isn’t silent. Some of the film’s most riveting and warm scenes feature long and animated conversations signed between several members of the family, such as when Zhane’s sister comes to visit from college.

In contrast, family conversations in CODA are painful. The film opens in 1975, with its protagonist as a young white British girl, watching her hearing family speaking to each other as if from a distance. She watches as her parents carry out a conversation about her new hearing aids without ever really including her in it. As soon as they look away, she pulls them out, clearly distressed by the noise. The film follows the little girl as she grows up, but the struggle is never resolved. Her family steadfastly refuses to learn to sign, effectively leaving her out of their lives. Instead of being embraced by her family, she is blamed for not wanting to wear hearing aids.

A still from CODA

A still from CODA

The protagonist has her own child, and finally finds acceptance and joy in a family relationship. The climax of the 10-minute film shows her grown-up daughter standing up to her parents.

The full-form of CODA is Child of Deaf Adults, and clearly refers to the protagonist’s daughter who is, like many other children of deaf adults, both bilingual and bi-cultural, in that she uses both a spoken and sign language, and is part of both deaf and hearing cultures.

This short film, especially watched after the chaotic but ultimately loving family dynamics in The Shattered Mind, powerfully brings home the complete alienation and neglect that can result from an insistence on the use of hearing aids, and a rejection of deaf culture.

While the central conflict in The Shattered Mind is one of memory, in CODA it is one of resistance against ableist imposition. It is the protagonist’s parents who, insisting that she should hear, and that hearing is the superior way to exist, ultimately never actually listen.

These two very different films depict deaf culture in a way that it is seldom depicted, with compelling storytelling, and talented film-making. They will leave the viewer moved, and certainly more informed.

Featured Image Credit: A still from The Shattered Mind