In The Land of the Deaf

Review from San Francisco Chronicle by Edward Guthmann

Wincing with disgust, a young deaf man remembers the pain of putting on hearing aids for the first time: “The noise of the chalk on the blackboard! Shouting, doors banging. I was completely lost. When I got home I took them off and went back to silence - what a relief!” That scene, told in sign language and subtitled in English, is one of many highlights from Nicholas Philibert's In the Land of the Deaf, a charming, beautifully paced French documentary.

A privileged look at the deaf community, In the Land of the Deaf is told by those who inhabit it, and not by an unseen narrator explaining the experience through the perspective of the hearing. With eloquence and directness, the participants in Philibert's film illuminate their world and show how their language is not necessarily a deficit - that their lives and their language, though superficially alien, are just as ‘normal’ as a hearing person's.

Philibert captures his participants in an unrehearsed, cinema-verite style. He tells his story in anecdotes, and gives us long, unbroken cuts that not only pull us into the action, but help us to understand, at least marginally, how it feels to live in a silent world. One of the best documentaries in recent years, In the Land of the Deaf has tremendous power and value: It educates and transports us, in a very pleasurable way, to another way of occupying this world, and it does so in an unrushed, intelligent fashion.

Review from the Austin Chronicle by Marjorie Baumgarten

Movies. Talking pictures. Sight and sound. In this day and age, we accept the pairing of moving images and synchronous sound as a given. They're the movies. So how does a more-or-less silent documentary fit into the scheme of things? Quite interestingly, it turns out.

This French film, which was shot over the course of several months, puts itself in the middle of deaf culture and opens that society up to the world of the hearing. This unusual documentary reveals to us this separate culture - so often excluded and isolated from the hearing world - and the animation, articulation, customs, and pride that distinguish its members. By the movie's end, the hearing audience will, most likely, feel like the excluded ones.

Strategically, a film about deaf culture presents many organizational obstacles. This is no ordinary documentary fuelled by numbers, facts, and statistics. This is a project that records the experiences, opinions, and attitudes of deaf people. To call this film “silent” is incorrect. Many of the subjects and interviewees vocalize aloud and the movie contains all the ambient noise any hearing person would ordinarily hear. Most of the speakers communicate through sign language and their comments are translated for the audience via onscreen subtitles. The hearing viewer gains a sense of the richness of life in the absence of sound. One speaker tells of the variations in sign language gestures across different languages. Another tells of his disappointment when his child was born with intact hearing and his diminished expectations for intimate communications. Additional factors in organizing this movie are the choices made when framing the signing speakers: conventional head-shots are scuttled in favour of full body shots. Communication becomes much more than talking heads. In the Land of the Deaf challenges our traditional expectations of documentaries and filmmaking while showing us our limited range of communication. It is a movie that is like nothing you've ever seen - or heard - before.

Review from The Washington Post by Richard Harrington

Nicholas Philibert's award-winning French documentary "In the Land of the Deaf" does much to dissolve borders of ignorance that keep the hearing from appreciating the culture and the language of a constituency (130 million strong worldwide) that might be more easily recognized if it were ethnically or racially defined, or perhaps had its own cuisine.

But this sensitive documentary makes it clear that the deaf are, in all but one sense, no different from any other group, embracing the same range of personalities, sharing the same dreams, experiencing the same emotions. Like any group with a crucial commonality, the deaf are also unique.

Philibert approaches their world in a surprisingly sensible manner, letting his subjects sign for themselves. There is no intrusive narration and no heavy-handed polemic, just the observed expression of children learning to speak, a young couple getting married and a marvelous teacher of sign language with time and memories on his hands.

Jean-Claude Poulain, who teaches sign language to hearing adults, provides both historical context and insights into complexities of deaf culture. The fiftyish Poulain recalls that when he was a child, his hands were tied behind his back in an effort to make him talk; now Poulain is a quiet crusader in the deaf-rights movement, pushing for bilingual education (French/sign). Blessed with a poignant Jacques Tati face that reflects immense passion and pathos, Poulain is a story-signer of the highest order. At one point, referring to his hearing daughter, he confesses, "I had dreamt of having a deaf child -- communication would be easier. But I love her all the same."

Offhanded but revealing, that twist is repeated later when a young man in a bar signs family history, noting that he comes from five deaf generations that have included the occasional hearing child ("poor thing"). The more common situation of deaf children born into hearing families is revealed in the recollections of several college-age kids who grew up feeling excluded. But Philibert (who is not deaf) is not out to demonize the hearing. The only villain here is ignorance. Philibert suggests the complexities of both emotions and politics in the world of the deaf, and some of the film's most poignant moments capture the interaction of teachers and youngsters struggling patiently to create public sound out of private silence.

All the kids are engaging, but one in particular, 6-year-old Florent, is a genuine heartbreaker. Blessed with huge, inquisitive eyes, Florent is first seen struggling with a tear-drenched writing assignment; at film's end, though, he's revealed as a playful, loving and loudly mischievous child, dealing with his condition, not burdened by it. "I look so I can hear," Florent explains, and you understand why he's been blessed with those eyes.

The importance of sight and sightlines is apparent. After all, sign language is a matter of hand-eye cooperation. Every gesture tells a story, and Philibert captures the rush of signs, the liquid loquaciousness of chattering hands, the body French of subjects whose mode of expression is as varied, lively, intense, rich and witty as any with sound attached.

And, Poulain explains, there's a practical edge to consider: There may be different dialects of sign language around the world -- he signs specific examples -- but common grounds allow for quicker communion than might be possible for the hearing, with their disparate languages. In this documentary, there is sign language, spoken French and English subtitles that cover the first two elements. And gradually, it is the sign language that comes to seem clearest, demystified by Philibert's respectful attention and empathy.

There's one other charming tableau involving a young deaf couple, Hubert and Marie-Helene (95 percent of the deaf marry within the culture). Philibert captures their wedding, where natural nervousness is heightened by the challenge of an essentially literary ritual, and later includes their apartment search (made difficult because of intense communication problems with a landlord) and the arrival of a baby. But the traditions and centeredness of the deaf community are most apparent in a scene from the wedding party, which includes both deaf and hearing folk, and features loud music and dancing. At one point the music stops, but Hubert and Marie-Helene keep on dancing, secure in themselves and their silent world.

“In the Land of the Deaf" is not rated and doesn't need to be.

“ A brilliantly perceptive view of deaf peoples lives”
-- The Daily Telegraph

“ Must not be missed” Le Point “ Go see this film... thrilling”
-- Le Figaro


Sign and Cinema - an essay
on the film by Jonathan Rosenbaum

Film Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle
Austin Chronicle
Washington Post

DVD Reviews

DVD Times


Strictly Film School article on Nicolas Philibert and the film


1994 -San Francisco International Film Festival Won Golden Gate
1994 Bombay International Documentary Film Festival
Won Golden Conch Best Non-Fiction Film
1998 Peabody Awards
Won Peabody Award  
1992 Entrevues Film Festival Won Grand Prix French Film and
1992 Grand-Prix du Festival de Belfort (France)
1992 Grand-Prix du Festival dei Popoli (Florence, Italie)
1993 Grand-Prix du Festival de Vancouver (Canada)
1993 Prix « Tiempo de Historia », Festival de Valladolid (Espagne)
1993 Prix Humanum, décerné par l’Association de la Presse Cinématographique de Belgique
1994 Prix du meilleur documentaire, Festival de Potsdam (Allemagne)

Disc Info

In The Land of the Deaf Boxshot

France 1992
99 minutes
Certificate: Exempt
1.66:1 16x9 Enhanced
Language: Sign and French
Subtitles: English
RRP: £12.99
Release Date: 1st August 2005


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