The Maine Deaf Film Festival is always a welcome and exciting addition to the Maine film scene. The annual celebration of films made by and/or starring deaf filmmakers and actors has been a highlight of the Maine film calendar for all of its 18 seasons (minus a few pandemic-scuttled years), bringing filmgoers both deaf and hearing to the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus in search of films they might otherwise have missed. That’s what a good film festival does, after all.

But this year’s event on Friday and Saturday coincidentally falls just when the profile of Deaf cinema is at its highest ever.

“It’s really the year of representation,” said Maine Deaf Film Festival organizer and USM Linguistics Professor Sandra Wood. Citing not only last week’s Oscar wins for best picture “CODA” and best supporting actor Troy Kotsur, but other high-profile films like Marvel’s “The Eternals” and Oscar-nominated short film “Audible,” Wood – who spoke to me over Zoom thanks to the video chat service’s automatic transcription function – says that Deaf filmmaking is definitely having a moment. Even if Hollywood’s still got a long way to go. 

The centerpiece of this year’s Maine Deaf Film Festival is “What?”, a modern-day silent comedy directed by Alek Lev and starring John Maucere as a deaf actor understandably frustrated by the lack of opportunities in Hollywood, especially after a not-deaf but “bankable” star is cast as a deaf man in a role Maucere’s long-suffering thespian really wants. What follows is a hilariously inventive and illuminating encapsulation of just how hard it is for deaf film professionals, all presented in a Chaplin-esque comic style. 

Maucere, himself an accomplished actor (“Law & Order,” “Southland,” “Switched at Birth”), no doubt channels a career’s-worth of experience into his performance as a talented deaf actor coping with an industry filled with prejudice and disregard in “What?” The same goes for his cast mates, with co-star Sheena Lyles appearing at this year’s festival to share her own experiences as a deaf actor in a world where meaningful Deaf representation onscreen remains maddeningly elusive. 

Emilia Jones in “Coda.” Apple TV Plus

“But what about ‘CODA’?,” I hear you asking. After all, this year’s best picture winner (whose title is an acronym for “child of deaf adults”) foregrounds its deaf characters almost entirely, with Kotsur, also recently seen in “The Mandalorian” and “The Book of Boba Fett”(where he came up with the Tusken Raiders’ unique sign language), taking home an Oscar himself. (Kotsur’s wife in the film is played by Marlee Matlin, who memorably became the first deaf person to win an Oscar for “Children of a Lesser God” back in 1986.) These are all undeniably good and deserving things, and – one can hope – will lead to greater opportunities for the many deaf actors, writers and directors looking to break into the big time. 

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And yet, as Sandra Wood explained to me in thoughtfully composed text, “CODA” still perpetuates some of the same tropes and trends that have dogged deaf people all along. Wood points out that, despite auditioning many actual children of deaf adults to play the central family’s lone hearing, singing-obsessed protagonist, filmmakers went with actor Emilia Jones, who, in addition to not being a CODA herself, knew neither how to sign, nor to sing. As Wood notes, the CODA community is, itself, a complex and important one. With Wood pointing me to a Facebook post from CODA actor and activist Jodee Mundy, I was struck by Mundy’s definition of herself. “I’m a native signer who hears and has a Deaf heart,” Mundy writes, a distinction that makes Jones’ casting much more problematic than I’d realized. 

Critics of the film have also pointed out how some of “CODA’s” conflicts ignore aspects of Deaf experience to present a world where deaf people are unable to function without a hearing person’s assistance. In addition, Wood also pointed out that Oscar-winner Kotsur’s achievement is even more impressive – if you know anything about the Deaf community, and the complex ways deaf people communicate. Kotsur’s signature, often bawdily expressive American Sign Language as “CODA’s” Frank Rossi differs markedly from Kotsur’s own speech, a nuance Wood notes most people wouldn’t recognize. I sure didn’t. 

Is all of this nitpicking? Not if you care about the actual issues facing deaf people, both in and outside of the Hollywood system – something the Maine Deaf Film Festival’s program will present in all its fullness. The movies have a long, regrettable history of well-intentioned patronizing when it comes to its “progressive,” feel-good stabs at big screen representation. In dramas about the Black experience like “Cry Freedom,” “Mississippi Burning” or “The Help,” it’s pretty glaring how filmmakers choose white protagonists to ease white audiences into grudging empathy. Quoting a colleague about “CODA’s” own issues in representation, Wood notes, “It would be like having a film called “QUEER,” and casting all straight actors.”

The films in this year’s Maine Deaf Film Festival are, in contrast, made by people in the Deaf community, behind and in front of the cameras. Wood explains that, as ever, both deaf and hearing audiences will find plenty to enjoy, with subtitles making the films accessible to everyone, and post-film discussions led and accompanied by sign language interpreters. So, regardless of whether you can hear or not, the Maine Deaf Film Festival promises two full days of thought-provoking (and excitingly topical) movie fun. 

The Maine Deaf Film Festival takes place on Friday from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. at USM’s Talbot Lecture Hall, 85 Bedford St., Portland. Tickets are $10 each day, with children under 12 and students with a valid USM ID getting in free. For more information, go to mainedeaffilmfest.com.

Dennis Perkins lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.


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