In The Land of the Deaf Review
Documentaries may have become le goût du jour in the UK and the US but France's love for documentaries has never been as fickle as their anglo-saxon cousins. The French public's appetite for documentaries is such that an amazing amount find themselves receiving nationwide theatrical releases which in turn, has led to small documentaries topping the box-office. French documentarists have long been regarded as masters of their art - Alain Resnais kicked off his heteroclite opus with the amazing Night and Fog as did Louis Malle with the Oscar-winning Le Monde du Silence (recently spoofed by Wes Anderson). Raymond Depardon later pioneered Cinéma Vérité and, more recently, Nicolas Philbert gave the world a fly-on-the-wall view of education in rural France in Être et avoir, and made stars out of its subjects. Probably thanks to the success of the latter in the UK, Second Run has decided to make Philibert's earlier effort, Le Pays Des Sourds, their first ever DVD release.
The film opens with a troupe of performers rehearsing what seems to be an intricate sign language opera. As they consult the sheet music, they change tempi and move between solos and ensemble pieces. Philibert leaves it up to the viewer to understand what is being said, underlining to us how the Deaf culture is one that is different but not one that is completely hermetically sealed to the hearing. Similarly to Être et avoir, two characters emerge as the main focus of the film: Florent, a diminutive little boy, and Jean-Claude Poulain, the old sign language teacher. Contrasting between their differing experiences of being deaf, the film shows us how our attitudes towards Deaf culture have evolved but still need to improve. The exhubrant Poulain acts as a guide of sorts to the viewer, giving us more insight into the culture and language and teaching us the nuances of the language as well as its very cinematic characteristics.
Despite the footage being very varied, jumping from school class footage to interviews to the everyday difficulty in communicating with hearing people, the editing of the footage is flawless. The film never lingers nor loses focus but retains our attention throughout, offering the viewer an unparalleled insight into Deaf culture. Although Philibert has voluntarily tried his level best to not make this into an openly didactic film, it seems unavoidable that every viewer will leave this film having learnt at least something about Deaf culture. Le Pays Des Sourds easily equals Être et avoir on all levels and, were one pushed to chose a favourite, I think Le Pays Des Sourds would probably be the winner.
The image is given an anamorphic transfer and retains the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The image does lack some sharpness and the colours seem slightly faded but much of this probably comes from the film's source material and the filming conditions with only natural light. There is some natural grain visible (again probably due to the limitations of the source material) but there is little sign of damage beyond reel change markers. Globally a good transfer.
The sound and subtitles:
Although the film is technically in French, most of the dialogue is in French sign language. This is well subtitled in English (which can be turned off) but there are times when the signing is not translated. This is not an error as it was the director's original intent to keep some sequences untranslated to immerse the viewer further into the world of sign language. The stereo mix exhibits no problems at all.
We get an introduction (subtitled in English, 8 mins) from Nicolas Philibert who tells us how he came to make this film. It doesn't contain any real spoilers so it can be viewed before or after the film. We also get an 8 page booklet featuring an interesting essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum about Sign and Cinema.
As this DVD is retailing at a budget price (under £10), it should be a compulsory purchase for almost everyone. The film never fails to deliver and will offer the viewer an experience they are not likely to forget. An excellent first release by Second Run who have gone to the effort of providing some good extras to a film that more often than not would have been given a bare-bones treatment.