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High-Deaf

April 7, 2011 By:
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From the Israeli film "Voices From El-Sayed"

Silence is golden and, in some cases, pure gold.

Just look at filmmaker Oded Adomi Leshem's bulging bio and see it glisten from the addition of "Voices From El-Sayed."

El-Sayed says it all for the Israeli director's career soundtrack as he shows his film about the Israel village with, it is reported, the most deaf/hearing-impaired residents per capita on the earth.

That Leshem listens to the void and finds so much to hear makes his hi-deaf film -- being shown as part of the Philadelphia Israeli Film Festival www. iffphila.com on April 9, at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr -- speak volumes as it touches the heart.

It is a village -- populated by most of the nation's 150,000 Bedouins -- where sounds of silence can be deafening to an outsider, and where many residents -- even the hearing -- sign off on what makes the area so distinctive.

For Leshem, who addresses this Saturday night's festival audience after the film, it is the unsaid that speaks the most. To that end, he adds, "I learned sign language before I made the film."

The soundtrack is the music of the cries and whispers of villagers not seeing themselves as victims in a hearing world. Why should they, asks resident Jumaa? After all, he signs in the film, "the hearing person shouts all day long and then his head explodes from all the noises,

"Deafness is excellent. It's quiet in our house; there isn't constant noise around us, there is nothing. The hearing person has a headache and is tense from it all day long."

But does the ear ache for sound when it is cut off from the rustles of the wind, the dramatic drops of rain -- when it does rain in the Negev -- filling puddles in plops?

"The first time I visited the village and saw the deafness, it all seemed so natural," reveals the director, one of Israel's most prominent documentarians. "I spent more than two years there and was overwhelmed by what I saw" -- and didn't hear.

The Tel Avivian tells of reassessing his own life during those two years. "In our so-called 'advanced society,' there is a wall between the hearing and deaf people, a divided society," a sort of nonwailing wall in which the two peoples operate their own lives along unbroken paths.

"But here, in El-Sayed, there was no such thing; we from the outside have a lot to learn."

Indeed, those in the village who do hear also sign, and there is, says Leshem, "a co-mingling of the hearing and nonhearing" in relationships that can result in what can be best described as muted mixed marriages.

"I am still in touch" with many of the people he encountered, says Leshem, and their impact on him personally has been major. "They have proved to be dominant forces in my life. They have also proved to me that if you want to communicate with someone, it is possible no matter" the obstacles.

We are the world -- silent and hearing? What could contrast more, reckons Leshem, than the movie man and the nomads.

"Here I am, a Jewish guy from Tel Aviv," and there they are, Bedouins from the Negev.

The Bedouins are cut off not just from the hearing world, but the socialized elements of Israel; as an illegally established village, El-Sayed has been shut off from many of the amenities and powers, including electrical, accorded civilized settings.

The filmmaker -- rarely at a loss for words in his career -- was amazed at the synchronicity with which this social setting did work.

"You are talking to someone who has no deaf friends in his life," he says of himself, "and I was not so aware of deaf culture either."

Until he found this nomadic outpost in the Negev, which he has transported via film to the outside world.

"After screenings, I will sit in the lobby, smoking a cigarette" -- he is Israeli, after all -- "and eavesdrop on conversations," says Leshem. What he hears on occasion opens his eyes to stereotypes still existing and dominating otherwise seemingly intelligent people's thoughts.

"People talk about deaf culture and don't know anything about it; there are stigmas, such as people think that those who can't hear have less intelligence," he says, dumfounded. "It is crazy."

But inconsistencies also drive the deaf Bedouins mad -- and angry. It was not so joyful a noise made in the community when one family decided to have their son Muhammad undergo a cochlear implant, which would allow him to hear.

"I understood the problem," says Leshem of the community contretemps paralleling the controversy in modern Western societies where some in the deaf community maintain theirs is a normal world and anyone changing over to the hearing world through surgery is traitorous.

"It could make life harder there for one who does have such an operation if it is successful" in this closed-off, yet closely knit, community, says the director.

Less, says Leshem, may mean more among the deaf, who are not -- and do not feel -- they are children of a lesser God. "They do not feel God has deserted them."

In the desert, they go their nonsounding way every day, their imprint felt if not heard. Are film audiences stunned into silence from what they see -- and what they don't hear?

After all, there is no musical soundtrack to guide their emotions, an anomaly for movies.

"We are not used to movies without music," agrees the director of another difference in his film, which incorporates hums, but no regular recorded musical mix. The silence is something audiences get used to after a while, giving it the ultimate shout-out at screenings.

Invariably, says Leshem, the movie is greeted "with standing ovations" at film festivals, underscoring that the sound of silence can come with its own score -- reverberating with the echoes of the heart.

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