Oded Adomi Leshem
Review by Leo Goldsmith
Posted on 26 June 2009
Source DVD screener
Shots of a wide plain of dust and small clusters of single-level homes along unpaved roads accompany the sounds of distant children and animals, a light wind resonating in the microphone. The first images of El-Sayed suggest not a place of controversy in a divided nation, but one of stillness and quiet. Voices from El-Sayed begins with these sights and sounds of the village, while onscreen text reveals that this town is home to the largest community of deaf people in the world. One of many “Unrecognized Villages” in the Negev Desert - where roughly half of the 150,000 Bedouins in Israel live - El-Sayed is deemed illegal by the Israeli government, and is therefore cut off from the country’s electrical grid, water main, and refuse collection.
Throughout Oded Adomi Leshem’s spacious and deeply felt documentary, the spectator is made to pause over many such scenes, ambient explorations of the sights and sounds of El-Sayed, and the effects are not only deeply evocative of the film’s setting but also subtly suggestive of its themes. Voices from El-Sayed is, after all, a film about sound and hearing. Congenital deafness in El-Sayed is widespread (one interviewee identifies 125 deaf residents in his neighborhood), so much so that it has become integrated into the culture. Hearing and non-hearing residents alike live in silence (but for the generators that provide the village’s power), and all use a variant of sign language adapted to local needs and habits. Many deaf residents of El-Sayed, like the extremely amiable Juma, live and work, resigned to or even mildly pleased with their impairment. “A hearing person is always nervous,” Juma explains half-seriously.
Nonetheless, while many like Juma persist contentedly, the place of the deaf in the larger, “normal” world remains ambiguous. New medical technology, covered by state health coverage, affords the opportunity to “cure” deafness by means of a cochlear implant, and Salim accepts the offer of surgery for his one deaf child, two-and-a-half-year-old Muhammad. The process of bringing sound to Muhammad’s ears is arduous. The implant requires batteries that are to be recharged by Salim’s generators; children and adults alike must bang on pots and pans in order to sensitize Muhammad to sound. And for some, like the otherwise upbeat Juma, the results of the operation remain uncertain: what will happen, he wonders, if the boy wishes he were deaf again?
Leshem’s film mainly explores these questions in face-to-face encounters with its subjects: friendly Juma, loving father Salim, and the gang of friends, neighbors, and local kids who make up the community (along with patrols of social workers and American linguists who seek them out). In other words, virtually all of the voices of El-Sayed are silent, suggesting that perspective or identity can be voiced in ways that are inaudible, gestural, or visual. Driving this point further, Leshem interpolates his ambient scenes and interviews - most of which are conducted through sign language with subtitles - with several sequences filmed by a local deaf teenager, Ruwayda El-Sayed. Filming her family and friends, she ruminates in subtitles about her aspirations to become a commercial camerawoman (to film weddings and celebrations) and marry a deaf boy, contrary to the custom of setting up mixed deaf-hearing marriages. But her monologues are delivered in complete silence, with no soundtrack whatsoever.
For the hearing viewer, these silent scenes create a fascinating rift in a film that is otherwise so much a celebration of sound. (For its astonishing ability to evoke details of subculture and landscape, the film’s sound design is reminiscent of that of Philip Gröning’s Into Great Silence.) In a film that is so gentle, so calm in other ways, this device creates an almost dialectical schism, sharply dividing and contrasting those sequences that are totally soundless, narrated only onscreen text, and those that are richly sonic, giving every sense of space and ambience through sensitive sound design. But of course, hearing in real life and hearing in a film are very different actions, as are the conditions of real deafness and movie silence. So, is this merely a gimmick? Is Leshem trying to give a hearing person a sense of what deafness is like by simply cutting the sound every once in a while?
On the surface, this may seem a simple and clever trick, but I think there’s something more complex at work. Indeed, the film doesn’t simply drop the sound periodically; it specifically forces harsh contrasts between loud sounds and blank silences. In different scenes, the call to evening prayer and the sound of Juma’s auto-shop are both cut short in aurally shocking ways, demanding not so much that the hearing spectator sympathize with the experience of deaf characters, as to consider how much he unites what he sees with what he hears.
For those who are not deaf, seeing and hearing are so integrally combined that it’s difficult to think of them otherwise, and this is especially true in cinema. In any film, as in life, there are the sounds we listen to, but also the sounds we’re able to tune out. In Voices of El-Sayed, Leshem deftly keeps the listener in suspense, denying them the complacency of the unified audio-visual world of cinema by engaging her sense the interaction of what is seen and what is heard. But nor does the film neglect its subject matter: the film remains engagingly and plainly visual as well, and one speculates that a hearing-impaired viewer would enjoy the film as much as a hearing one, with inevitably crucial differences.
As with any great documentary, the film achieves this through its editing, never flashily montaged, but always attentive to the subjects’ gestures and movements. Leshem shows patience throughout, as in the opening sequence, relying both on a critical eye and on the ability of long sequences to slowly reveal themselves (a combination that aligns the film with some of the late work of Frederick Wiseman). The film is thus episodic, but never arbitrary, and there are many fluid, seemless sequences, as when a discussion with one character about marriage is interrupted with a power outage, and the scene morphs into a neighborhood discussion about the busted oil pipe, the cost of a new generator, and ways of evading Israeli checkpoints.
Sequences such as these demonstrate that, even if there were no sound, the film would have much to express. Indeed, as Michel Chion notes in the introduction to The Voice in Cinema, both Jean Painlévé and Robert Bresson agreed that cinema was never truly silent. That is to say that, even in the era of silent films - what, in French, are literally “mute” films - cinema was unbound in expressing itself. Voices of El-Sayed is a film that suggests a great deal - about sound and deafness, about listening and watching movies, about hearing, watching, and interpreting images of Israel - and though it is often silent, it speaks loudly in many other ways.