Deafening Silence

A boy sits on his mother's lap sucking a lollipop. A woman approaches from behind and starts shaking a bell loudly. The boy does not move. The woman persists. She takes out a tambourine and bangs it a few times with a wooden hammer. The boy does not react to the loud, irritating noise. His parents look at him worriedly. The drumming continues until suddenly, in a single move, the boy turns toward the source of the noise. The adults rejoice in relief: "Mohammed hears!"

Loud and quiet, tumult and stillness, talking and silence are central motifs of the film "A Snail in the Desert," which will be screened at the Jerusalem Film Festival on Friday. Director Oded (Adomi) Leshem, went to an unrecognized Bedouin village in the Negev where members of the al-Sayed tribe live, and found an intriguing community. Researchers believe this village has the highest percentage of people born deaf in the world - 20 times more than the percentage in the general population - but because the village is unrecognized, it is unclear whether this statistic is indeed accurate. In any event, it is fascinating to discover that all the residents of this village speak a unique sign language, which makes communications between the hearing and the deaf natural and routine. The deaf are not outcasts, and are not considered unusual.

And yet, the story of the boy Mohammed depicts the conflict that technological progress poses for the village's residents: a small implant placed behind the ear lets children born deaf hear, and learn to talk. Doctors from Soroka Hospital come to the village in order to show the residents the curious new technology, and they deliberate: is it worth going through the long, exhausting obstacle course for the "snail," or implant, or should the deaf continue living with this handicap? Mohammed's parents decided to help their son hear, and "A Snail in the Desert" follows them and their friends on the road to change.

Without talking heads

"When I arrived in the village, I was captivated by the place immediately, the harmony I found between the hearing and the deaf, between the special population and the normal population," says Leshem. "I was excited by this blurring of borders. Right away it presented me with a mirror of how we, a supposedly advanced society, distinguish between normal and unusual, between the hearing and the deaf.

"When I was in the village of the al-Sayed tribe, I didn't sense this separation. It's a place where everyone lives in peace with deafness."

And so as a matter of course, the question of the implant's necessity arose.

"The implant, after all, gives deaf children an option to be like everyone else, but is it truly good? If people are comfortable with themselves, then why do we need to change anything? Do things have to normalized?" wonders Leshem.

One of the heroes of the film, Jumaa, explains why he believes deafness is good, and why deaf people are better off.

"The hearing person shouts all day long and then his head explodes from all the noises," he explains to the camera in rapid sign language. "Deafness is excellent. It's quiet in our house; there isn't constant noise around us, there is nothing. The hearing person has a headache and is tense from it all day long."

Ruwayda dreams of becoming a wedding photographer, and Leshem gave her a camera. Some clips she filmed were included in his film. She declares she has come to terms with her deafness.

"Being deaf is fun," she explains through the subtitles that accompany the clips she filmed. "Even if I could ask God to grant me hearing, I wouldn't want to."

Nevertheless, one of the most interesting elements of the film is the unconventional soundtrack. Because the film is about hearing and deafness, Leshem felt a dominant soundtrack was important. For that reason, he chose not to interview people who can speak. All the interviews are in sign language, accompanied by subtitles in Hebrew and Arabic. Leshem also decided to refrain from using any music at all.

"It's not a legitimate tool in this kind of film," he explained. He said it was important to him that the film be accessible to the deaf population. A minimal soundtrack ranging from soft whisperings to total silence accompanies many parts of the film. The clips filmed by Ruwayda, for example, are shown amid complete silence. In contrast, other clips are accompanied by loud, disturbing noises, such as the banging next to Mohammed's ears, the whir of the village generators, or the deafening noise of the compressor in the garage, as Jumaa dozes alongside, completely oblivious.

"We are used to having a constant soundtrack," says Leshem, "but in the film, Mohammed suddenly learns to understand that a dripping faucet makes a noise and that a rooster makes a noise. In order to appreciate our hearing, and in order to sharpen the experiences of deafness and hearing, I decided that the soundtrack would dominate.

"When Ruwayda films, for example, when she is inside her silent world, it's a challenge to the viewers, because we aren't used to such things in a film. All sorts of people told me, 'Put some kind of sound into these clips, like her breathing, or her heartbeat.' But she doesn't hear them, and that's why I decided there's no reason why we should experience these moments in a different way than she experiences them."

A variation in form

Leshem ("Adomi has been my nickname since I was 10, because of some red hat on a Scouts hike"), 36, completed his studies at the Sam Spiegel Film School five years ago and now lives in Tel Aviv. A feature film he made, "The Brave Cowards" (Hebrew title: "Hapahdanim Ha'amitzim"), has been screened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

"It was a cross-genre film, about a professor in Perlov's image who goes to a trance party," he says. "A Snail in the Desert" also has some experimental elements, mostly regarding the soundtrack. "If you make a film using familiar tools, it tends to have banal undertones," says Leshem. "If it's made using a familiar format, with no variations in form whatsoever, it will not reach the desired undertones and therefore you have to approach it from a new angle."

"A Snail in the Desert" is the second film produced under the auspices of the Shavim Project, a joint venture of the Gesher Foundation, the Second Authority and the Jerusalem Cinematheque. The project aims to produce one film a year that addresses social justice and equality in Israeli society. The next project winner, to be announced at the screening Friday, will receive a NIS 485,000 grant and will be invited to screen his film at next year's Jerusalem Film Festival