An outstanding documentary exploration of the travails of four deaf entertainers, Hilari Scarl’s “See What I’m Saying” provides a glimpse into a performance circuit that few hearing-enabled Americans likely realize exists. Rather than a disability, deafness begins to seem almost an entry fee into a singular subculture with celebrities, traditions and prejudices all its own, and this community’s actors and artists face troubles that are both familiar and fascinatingly strange. Well-made docu should have little difficulty finding a receptive audience at fests and on homevid.
Flying along with a snappy pace and sharp comic timing, the film follows four highly distinctive performers. Standup comic CJ Jones is a major figure on the deaf entertainment circuit but can’t get arrested at mainstream comedy festivals; Robert DeMayo is an HIV-positive actor who sometimes sleeps on park benches in between teaching classes at Juilliard; Bob Hiltermann is a wild-man drummer for all-deaf rock band Beethoven’s Nightmare; and TL Forsberg is an Amy Lee-style singer and actress who feels ostracized from the community due to being only “hard of hearing.”
Their travails are often revelatory, and the notion that some hearing-impaired people are seen as “not deaf enough” seems particularly twisted, with Forsberg criticized by a purist after performing in “Children of a Lesser God.” Comic Jones is also fascinating to watch; although his jokes (like all the film’s dialogue) are subtitled, it’s obvious that the heart of his comedy is in the timing of his sign language.
The film has moments of hysterical humor — an attempted signed exchange about the Beatles and the British Invasion ends up translating as “roach infestation” — and a climactic Beethoven’s Nightmare concert at Los Angeles’ El Rey Theater (their first in a big-time venue) is understatedly triumphant. Technical contributions are all effective, though particular plaudits must go to the film’s astute editing and, ironically, a charming musical score.