In the Land of the Deaf
No doubt the reason this 1992 film is being re-released is because of the surprise success in 2003 of Etre et Avoir, Philibert's portrait of a French rural school. Not that the earlier work needs to ride on the success of the later one; it is a compelling document. The two films together confirm Philibert as a master of documentary.
His subject, here, is communication among deaf people. There is no commentary, little spoken dialogue and only a few subtitles. At the start, we see what is, in effect, the performance of a musical work in sign language: a ballet of gestures. We go inside a classroom where deaf children are being taught with the hearing to communicate, then into another where the teacher, Jean-Claude Poulain, is teaching sign language (in sign language). The deaf children talk about their lives, in their world and in ours.
The guiding principle behind the film, Philibert insists, was to show deaf people not as lacking something that hearing people have, but as the possessors of something the hearing lack - a language of signs that is expressive, beautiful and complete. He compares it to the "language" of cinema, the system of signs and conventions by which meaning is communicated on film.
The deaf are much more visually aware and their faces more expressive. They can communicate across frontiers, although Poulain points out that sign language varies from country to country; it takes him a few days to learn a new system when abroad.
Philibert decided to learn sign language some 10 years before making this film and found that he had to discard many preconceptions. He offers us the same learning experience. At the highest level, his film is an exploration of the nature of language and communication; at the most practical, it is a moving introduction for hearing people to what it means to be deaf.