Belatedly recognised as an Official Language of New Zealand last year, Sign of the Times documents the deaf and sign language community’s constant forge for that recognition. Screening at the Human Rights Film Festival, BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM looked at its significance.

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IT WAS ONLY last year, after years of struggle, that Parliament officially recognised sign language as an Official Language of this country. For 24,000 people who use the language (including 7,000 Deaf people), this finally acknowledged that the language is vital for communication in New Zealand. Sign of the Times is a documentary that looks at that struggle for recognition, and is screening in the Human Rights Film Festival.

The passing of the New Zealand Sign Language Bill was seen as finally accepting the Deaf Community. “When the Speaker of the House announced the final count of votes and that the NZSL Bill was now passed the 150 members of the Deaf community in Parliament public galleries leap to their feet in uproarious Deaf cultural applause of hand-waving and foot stomping. There were lots of hugs and happy tears.”

Co-directors Paul Wolframm and Victoria Manning highlight some of the difficulties the Deaf Community have faced in New Zealand. Sign language was first used in New Zealand in the late nineteenth century, however, educators weren’t particularly tolerant of people who used the language. “Their hands were tied behind their backs to prevent them from signing, and they were made to spend hours practicing lip-reading and speech in rooms lined with mirrors. Attempts to sign despite this restraint were interpreted as misbehaviour and punished. Parents were instructed to prevent their Deaf children from signing, even though their children signed spontaneously and naturally.”

This recognition provided the impetus for this documentary. “We wanted to capture on film the historic moment of NZSL becoming an official language. We saw this as important for our Deaf history and for New Zealand’s history of gaining a third official language. We wanted to tell the story behind the official recognition of NZSL, including the history of NZSL.” The directors also wanted to allow people who have traditionally been marginalised, the opportunity to have their views heard. “It was very important to us during our filming that we provided a medium for the Deaf community to tell their own story. We set out to make this film in an ethnographic way, with no prior set agenda. We let the community lead us, and we followed their issues and stories that came up during the filming process.”

The film was produced on a budget of $6000, and involved editing down 30 hours of footage into a one-hour piece. It took 8 months to make, and thirty people were interviewed. It wouldn’t have been an easy process, however, film seemed the natural medium to highlight the struggle. “NZSL is a wholly visual language so film is a perfect way to capture NZSL and Deaf culture.”

The documentary includes interviews from the Deaf Community. “During filming we were really touched by how welcoming the Deaf community were. They entrusted us with their very important story and supported us along the way. Deaf people would often drop their work to be interviewed by us and then help us find other people to interview and sometimes gave us meals and a bed.” However, as one might suspect, interviewing Deaf people will pose a few filmic problems. “Filming Deaf people was challenging. In interviews with Deaf people we had to frame their signing space (top of head to about waist level) and couldn’t vary the shots or make them interesting by doing close-ups or moving slowly in or out, etc. We also couldn’t cut away to other cover shots in the middle of a Deaf person’s interview. This meant we had to be creative and find other ways to make the interviews interesting and retain the audiences interest.”

The documentary is due for a screening on Maori TV and the Sky Documentary channel. There is also foreign interest, and the documentary has already screened on Australian TV and in a UK Deaf Film Festival. However, screenings are coming up during the Human Rights Film Festival. While the festival is traditionally known for struggles of peoples in other countries, Sign of the Times suggests that even in New Zealand, the struggles to be heard are just as relevant and important.