American Sign Language Film ‘WHAT?’ Screens at WHBPAC - 27 East

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American Sign Language Film ‘WHAT?’ Screens at WHBPAC

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The Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center hosts a screening of the silent film “WHAT?” On September 29, in honor of National Silent Film Day. COURTESY WHBPAC

The Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center hosts a screening of the silent film “WHAT?” On September 29, in honor of National Silent Film Day. COURTESY WHBPAC

authorStaff Writer on Sep 19, 2023

The Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center’s Rose and Don Ciampa World Cinema Series will host a screening of the silent film “WHAT?” on September 29, in honor of National Silent Film Day. Two ASL interpreters will be on site for the event, and the film will be accessible to people of all abilities.

Filmed in the black and white, silent comedy style of Charlie Chaplin, but set in modern-day Los Angeles, “WHAT?” tells the story of a Deaf actor who is tired of the disrespect and discrimination he confronts in Hollywood. He decides — through sign language, gestures, and whatever it takes — to take matters into his own hands.

Starring actor John Maucere, “WHAT?” was written by Maucere along with Alek Lev and D.J. Kurs and released in 2021. The film features both Deaf and hearing actors and utilized a mixed crew, giving unprecedented opportunities to Deaf artists and crew members in Hollywood. Five languages were used on set — American Sign Language, Catalan Sign Language, German Sign Language, spoken German and spoken English. Directed by Lev, Maucere said that the film’s purpose was to break barriers by showing the audience, Deaf and hearing, that they can experience laughter and empathy simultaneously from a silent film. The film was nominated for, and won, numerous awards including Best Comedy at the Paris Film Festival, the Audience Choice Award, Best Feature Film, and Best Actor for Maucere at the Culture and Diversity Film Festival.

“We’re thrilled to be able to offer this opportunity as part of our Finest in World Cinema program,” said WHBPAC Director of Sales Allison Frost. “Here’s a film that evokes the spirit of the silent classics like ‘Modern Times,’ ‘The General’ and ‘Safety Last!’ through tributes in shooting locations, physical comedy and sight gags.

“It’s a return to the ‘golden era’ of cinema for the Deaf community — when silent movies could be enjoyed by deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons,” she continued. “And yet, the heart of the film is something that both Deaf and hearing audiences will readily identify with — being seen for who you are.”

In the late 1920s and early-1930s, Hollywood transitioned from silent films to new sound technology, commonly referred to as “talkies.” Revolutionizing the film industry, this shift imposed significant limitations on the inclusion of deaf and hard of hearing individuals who had previously enjoyed relatively equal access to this cultural medium. While the efforts of the Deaf community ultimately brought about captions, both open and closed, as well as the continued training of deaf actors and the advent of sign language films, Deaf representation in Hollywood continues to be a struggle. As late as 2021, actress Marlin Matlin had to threaten to drop out of filming for the film “CODA” unless other Deaf actors were also cast.

While to hearing audiences, celebrating National Silent Film Day may be a nostalgic nod to a bygone era of cinema, it holds deeper significance for the Deaf community, one that the WHBPAC highlights this year thanks to a sponsorship from Suffolk Independent Living Organization (SILO) Inc, which aims to enable people with disabilities of Suffolk County to gain effective control and direction of their lives. SILO advocates and promotes a growing sense of personal dignity and responsible community participation through training, community development and direct services responsive to the needs of the people.

Tickets for the screening are $13 at whbpac.org, 631-288-1500, or at the box office located at 76 Main Street, Westhampton Beach.

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