Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.
The Mill Valley Film Festival offered what is, to me, the best film of the year: Judy Lieff's Deaf Jam, a mesmerizing celebration of American Sign Language poetry as performed by high schoolers from Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City. (Highlighting the incredibly charismatic Aneta Brodski, it plays again November 3 as part of the Independent Lens series on PBS.) This week, the United Nations Association Film Festival offers its own film on deaf culture with a wonderful short doc by Stanford MFA grad Mina T. Son, Making Noise in Silence. It’s a tight 19 minutes in the lives of Jeongin and Min Wook, two deaf South Korean students whose families sent them to far away Fremont for the unique opportunities California School for the Deaf presented. Son, who’s in the middle of filming a feature on table tennis phenoms, chatted via email before her UNAFF screening October 26 at Stanford.
SF360: How did this project come into being? I know you had a previous short about a blind architect, so are portrayals of disability an ongoing documentary interest for you?
Mina T Son: It was a total coincidence that I ended up making two films back to back on issues around disability. For my previous short, An Architect's Vision, I read an L.A. Times article about Chris Downey, an architect who at the height of his career lost his sight. I couldn’t get the story out of my head. I was so inspired by Chris’ passion and drive to continue doing something he loved regardless of what obstacles came in his way, I wanted to make a film about him.
My original idea for Making Noise in Silence was to find a teenager who was both deaf and Afghan American. After reading The Kite Runner, I wanted to learn more about Afghan culture and I thought an interesting starting point would be to research more about Fremont, where part of the novel takes place. Fremont also happened to be very close to where I was living at the time. It was then that I learned the area had a prominent deaf community because of the California School for the Deaf (CSD). I had also just watched a clip from Sound and Fury (Josh Aronson, 2000), a film that discussed deaf culture in a way I had never been exposed to. Here were two seemingly very different cultures that had sizable communities in a particular area and I wanted to find someone who was part of both groups.
I think I was drawn to this idea because of my own experiences growing up bicultural (I was born in the U.S. and my parents are from Korea). Issues of identity are always complicated, but it’s so much harder as a teenager. So I wanted to find a high school student who’d be interested in sharing their experiences with me. I contacted CSD, who was on board with the project from the beginning. I’ll always be grateful to the staff and students there, especially Joey Baer who was instrumental in helping me make this film. However, CSD didn’t have any students of Afghan descent enrolled at the time. So I asked if there were any Korean high school students and there were two: Jeongin and Min Wook! Looking back, this was the best thing that could have happened. I really think one of the reasons I was able to gain trust from Min Wook and Jeongin was because I was Korean and that was something the three of us shared.
SF360: You were able to pack in a lot of deaf cultural touch points in such a short piece. For example, frustrations with cochlear implants; personal development being held back by not having access to a sign language; the significance of Gallaudet University, a deaf-centered University, in Washington, D.C. There’s even a moment when Jeongin is working with typeface that alludes, intentionally or not, to the fact that printing presses used to be a major employer for deaf folk back in the day. [C]an you tell us a bit about what you knew about the deaf community before beginning this project and what you learned as being a part of this project? Were you looking to highlight certain aspects of deaf culture in the short or did most everything truly arise organically?
Son: I never thought of the typeface connection to deaf culture and history, but I’m so glad you brought it up! Before this project, I knew very little about the deaf community and even less about being deaf in the cultural sense, which is why I took a beginning ASL class during pre-production. But it wasn’t until I started visiting CSD that I really began learning about the culture. CSD is a deaf-centered environment where communication is almost entirely in ASL. My first few visits were definitely overwhelming, but it also allowed me to experience things organically, which I then tried to translate into the film.
For example, one thing I noticed when I began filming was that there was a lot more physical contact than I am used to. It makes sense because you can’t just call someone to get his or her attention or ask someone to step aside. So often times, I saw that subtle communication was done through touch, which I really liked because it establishes more of a connection. I was hoping that with the first scene of the film in the hallway, viewers might pick up on this. Overall though, while I was interested in revealing aspects of deaf culture, I mostly wanted people to have the chance to experience being a part of this world.
SF360: Can you describe for us the ASL sign for ‘Korean’? I know that deaf communities have been addressing racist signs, such as the sign for ‘Chinese’ in ASL where the index fingers ‘slant’ ones eyes reminiscent of the infamous racist schoolyard taunt. Does the ASL sign for ‘Korean’ have a similar racist history or is it void of that?
Son: The ASL sign for Korean reminds me of the Asian conical hat, like the ones rice farmers wear. With your right hand, you make the shape of the hat going from the side of the top of your head to your ear. I’m sorry, I’m probably doing a bad job of describing it! I’d heard of older signs having racist undertones, but I’m not sure if the sign for Korean falls into that category. When I first saw the film, In the Land of the Deaf (Le pays des sourds, Nicolas Philibert, 1992), I was shocked at the sign for Japanese because I think it’s similar to the one you mentioned above for Chinese. But I think a lot of these signs have been updated in the U.S.
SF360: When French documentarian Philibert presented [that very film just mentioned] at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley a while back, he commented about how much he learned about the visual language of film from working with the French deaf community. Did you have a similar experience? If so, what new ways to film and present visual information did you learn from your work with [CSD]?
Son: In the Land of the Deaf was a film I heavily researched in preparing for my project and even wrote a paper on it during film school. The film has such a magical quality to it and the fact that it is almost entirely in French Sign Language gave me the courage and inspiration to make my film. Based on Philibert’s experience, I realized for a film like mine, the content was going to dictate the filmmaking approach rather than the other way around. As a result, my approach was to go with longer takes composed within a medium frame to properly capture the conversations and to keep the integrity of the language of sign. It was especially difficult because a lot of the times I had no idea what people were saying while I was filming. I’d just continue to film and would stop rolling when it seemed like there was a lull in conversation. Then I’d quickly turn to my interpreter and ask them to give me a rough summary of what just happened. It forced me to be patient with my filming and ultimately, I think that worked to my advantage.
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