Voices from El-Sayed [Full Frame 09]

Oded Adomi Leshem’s Voices from El-Sayed (IMDB) depicts a small Bedouin community in the Negev desert on the outskirts of Israel that also happens to be the home of the largest deaf community on the planet.  Thanks to the community’s large deaf population, the villagers of El-Sayed no longer see deafness as a handicap.  At the beginning of the film, none of the town’s residents wear hearing aids, and others, including the young auto mechanic, Juma, in fact consider their isolation from the noises of modern life to be something close to a benefit.  Juma is protected from the noise of the auto repair shop where he works, oblivious to the noise of drills and other mechanical instruments, even taking catnaps in the midst of persistently loud noises. More compelling, the villagers have evolved their very own sign language, and most people in El-Sayed, whether hearing or not, are fluent in the language.

The town’s sense of itself is challenged somewhat when a group of Israeli doctors come into El-Sayed offering to perform cochlear implants on some of the town’s children.  The operation is covered by the country’s medical insurance, and the surgery might provide some of the town’s deaf children with opportunities they might not otherwise have.  Although most of the town’s residents, including Juma, are skeptical, one father, Salim, decides to get the operation for his son, Muhammad, raising interesting questions about whether parents have the right to obtain what might be seen as elective surgery on their children, committing them to an irreversible procedure that will, in many ways, transform their relationship to the world.

The father’s decision is presented with incredible complexity, both in terms of the implications of the choice, and through the sound and visual elements that convey how the decision will affect young Muhammad.  As Jett Loe (a fellow Full Frame attendee) points out, the hospital scenes make us acutely aware of how we experience sound.  The father hears an automated recording on an elevator that his som blithely ignores.  Street sounds hit us in ways that make us feel as if we are hearing differently, more acutely.  Later, we learn that the cochlear implant procedure is not as simple as it sounds: it will take months for Muhammad to learn to hear, and his family will have to spend hours speaking to him and practicing, testing him by banging drums and pots behind him to see if he reacts.  Complicating things further, El-Sayed is an “unrecognized” village, meaning that the state government doesn’t provide them with the electricity needed to keep the implant fully charged, and Salim has to arrange for a noisy generator to be used to fulfill that purpose.

Intercut with Muhammad’s story are scenes filmed by a 17-year old girl, Ruwayda, who aspires to be a wedding photographer or filmmaker.  Her scenes capture much of the beauty in the everyday life of El-Sayed.  Because Ruwayda is deaf, Leshem plays her scenes silently, with titles telling us her story, her aspirations to film, and her insecurities about her talents.  While her compositional style clerly shows her eye for filmmaking, the calmness of the scenes stands in contrast to the noises of El-Sayed, illustrating again the problems with labeling deafness as a disability, even while recognizing the excitement that Muhammad displays when he first hears sound.

While the film is built primarily around Muhammad’s narrative, I read it more as a meditation on language, communication, and identity.  There is a powerful scene included in the film in which a couple of English-speaking researchers are videotaping El-Sayed residents as they sign their language for the camera. Juma and others eagerly participate, understanding the importance of preserving their language and culture.  At the same time, Juma becomes increasingly reconciled to the potential benefits of hearing.  He is clearly relieved to hear that Muhammad is beginning to adjust to the hearing world.  By introducing us to such compelling characters and challenging philosophical questions, Voices from El-Sayed heightened my awareness of how we communicate and how hearing structures our world.  It was, without doubt, one of the most subtly observant documentaries I saw at this year’s Full Frame.

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