By C.J. Hirschfield
October 22, 2022
I can’t imagine being denied access to movies, plays, comedy shows, or concerts; you probably can’t either. And yet that’s how it is for 40+ million Deaf and Hard of Hearing (HOH) Americans, whose attempts to get venues and artists to understand their need for consistent, high-quality professional and well-lit sign language interpreters are met with barrier after barrier.
East Bay producer/director Cat Brewer’s fine new film, Sign the Show, accomplishes what many documentaries strive for—to identify an important issue, effectively educate the viewer on the subject, and then offer real solutions by demonstrating how thoughtful people are leading the charge for change. The fact that the film is peppered with great music, theater and comedy clips serves to keep an upbeat vibe throughout, and the intentional diversity of the film’s cast is energizing.
We are introduced to entertainers, the Deaf and (HOH) community, and American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters who discuss accessibility at live performances.
In terms of education, there is a lot to learn. If you think that Deaf people can’t fully enjoy music, think again. “It’s the heartbeat,” one person says, “Deaf people just experience it in a different way.” The decision to use well-known performers Kelly Clarkson and Chance the Rapper who frankly acknowledge their initial lack of understanding of the issue, and then make the effort to become educated, enlightened, and most importantly, to take action to ensure their shows are accessible– was a great one. These two, and other performers featured in the film, give us hope that change might be on the way.
And yet, the challenge is real. One Deaf Beyonce fan tells of purchasing a ticket for her concert. The venue assured him that there would be an interpreter, but that turned out to be untrue. “I want to feel like I belong,” he said. “I felt like a bother.” Under current law, “reasonable accommodation” can exist in the form of a “Deaf night” performance, rather than signers at every show.
A beautiful story is told in Sign the Show about passionate music fan Matt Maxey, who was born with a severely profound hearing loss. As a Black and Deaf man, he founded DEAFinitely Dope, to provide support for those feeling marginalized and ignored by mainstream America. Seeing this crazily charismatic man on stage joyfully interpreting the songs of Chance the Rapper—who joins him in signing—is one of the high points in the film.
And there is humor. How does an interpreter deal with salty rap lyrics—and the body parts that are often sung about? And what do you do if the interpreter wants to be the center of attention, instead of the artist?
The point is made in the film that we wouldn’t think of asking wheelchair-bound concertgoers to bring a ramp every time they attend an event, so why should Deaf and HOH people have to request an interpreter each and every time they buy their tickets? The question is asked: “Why not just include it in the budget?”
Sign the Show asks us to consider the fact that signing at events could also benefit everyone, enhancing their experience.
“It’s a feast for your eyes, it’s a feast for your heart.”
Sign the Show will be screened as part of the United Nations Association Film Festival at various venues from October 20-30.
Sign the Show plays on Wednesday, October 26 in San Francisco at the Roxie.
C.J. Hirschfield has reviewed these films also in the Festival.
Listen to or read a KALW interview with filmmaker Cat Brewer.
C.J. Hirschfield retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”