IN THE FALL OF 2002 I received a call from Karen Kenton, an executive producer at WETA, the Washington, D.C., public television station. She asked me whether I would be interested in producing a film about the history of deafness in the United States. I live only a few minutes away from the Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts, and less than an hour's drive from the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, so I had heard more than a little about the issues of deaf education. I knew that the story was bound to contain drama, tension, characters, and emotion. In fact, I was well aware that if we were not careful we could be stepping into a hornet's nest. Of course, this sounded like good television, so I asked Karen to tell me more.
She said that, in the summer of 2002, Dr. I. Kingjordan, president of Gallaudet University, had contacted Sharon Rockefeller, president and CEO of WETA, to discuss the possibility of collaborating on a documentary film inspired by the exhibition History through Deaf Eyes, which was on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Recognizing Gallaudet's access to a vast collection of archival materials and other resources, WETA readily agreed to take on the project. Believe me, this kind of thing doesn't usually happen. It can take years to convince a major PBS station to get interested, but WETA knew right away that this was no ordinary subject and that this should be no ordinary film.
Then they called me. I had worked with WETA a few years before, producing a film called Divided Highways: The Interstates and the Transformation of American Life. The subject, not unlike the history of deafness in the United States, was vast, and I knew that there were more car and highway motion picture archives than any other kind in the country. But as we started scouting the locations for the film, I got more and more worried. The interstates, perforce, had been built to federal standards, and they all looked exactly alike. Another problem was that you can't just take interview subjects and plunk them down next to the highway and start asking questions. Besides the bugs and the noise and the police you could get yourself killed. So I came up with the idea to shoot everyone in the film against a green screen, the same kind that special-effects people use to make actors fly and meteorologists use to project maps. In that way I could place people wherever I wanted, keep the feeling of movement, which is important in a highway film, and do it all from the comfort of a hotel room.
To give you a little sense of our style and the techniques we use to try to keep viewers' hands off their remote control buttons, here are the first few minutes of Divided Highways, [clip shown]
This film did very well. It won an Emmy and a Peabody and is in use in schools across the country. It's a good example of how to take a history of a subject that parallels the history of our country and make it lively and relevant for a broad spectrum of the population. That is a challenge we face with History through Deaf Eyes as well.
So, how do we approach a film about the history of deafness? History through Deaf Eyes will have a dual focus. Part of its subject is deafness from the inside: the personal experiences of deaf people (and hearing people with deaf children or parents). The film will take its viewers into the homes and lives of deaf people to show what is different-and what is just the same-in the Deaf world.
However, the center of the film will be the larger picture: the history of Deaf culture as a whole-how a community came into being and what that circle has meant to its members for nearly two centuries. It is a history that has all of the elements of a classic American saga. It's a story with a perfect dramatic arc, complete with plot points-the long rise from near nonexistence, the sudden fall and resulting crisis, then the final triumph . …