Deaffest, the eagerly anticipated annual Deaf Film and Arts Festival returned to Wolverhampton with a BANG, to celebrate its 10th anniversary at the weekend. Yes it’s true Deaffest has been going for 9 years (with 2 festivals taking place in the same year), through good times and bad, through years when funding was difficult to find and years like this one 2015 where Deaffest, funded by the Arts Council and the British Film Institute, was recognised as an important event in Deaf people’s lives. The attendance figures where on a scale never before witnessed, 2015 proved without a doubt how well deserved that funding was. Deaffest would like to give a big thanks to our sponsors who have contributed to making the festival as successful as it was.
Thursday 14th May 2015
Deaffest’s rise in popularity over the years both nationally and internationally continued this year with even more global involvement than ever before. And with an extra day added to fit it all in, Thursday saw the arrival of an amazing theatre group coming all the way from South Africa. The group Listen With Your Eyes, consisting of actors Bo Tasker, Darren Rajbal and Ismael Mansoor, performed a play they had created for the first time ever together in the UK. The Deaf comedy show based in a science lab has a visual plot which follows the escapades of a hearing scientist and his Deaf assistant finding communication a big challenge.
Central to the plot was an out of control robot whose outrageous antics had children in uproarious laughter when it was performed at the Light House for schools on Thursday morning. Darren’s robotic movements and dance skills were hypnotising to watch.
And for any kids who were inspired to try their hand at acting after seeing the performance, the day was completed with a drama workshop in the afternoon led by the ever popular and inventive Deafinitely Theatre. I bet neither Deafinitely Theatre’s Paula Garfield or Charly Arrowsmith had ever come across so many kids wanting to learn how to perform robotic moves before!
Over 30 students from different areas of the UK attended the free performance/ workshops and they also had the opportunity to visit the deaf Art & Photography exhibition in the main gallery at the Light House which can be viewed throughout May 2015.
Friday 15th May 2015
Internationally acclaimed Italian born VV (Visual Vernacular) expert, Giuseppe Giuranna has travelled all the way from Europe to appear at Deaffest it provides a unique opportunity for UK students to learn this fascinating art form from a world expert! And Friday was the day for students to do just that. An all day workshop for 11 – 18 year olds was held at Arena Theatre where students were put at ease by the charismatic Giuseppe, who ensured that by the end of the day their talents (and the confidence to use them) had reached new heights. Giuseppe started doing VV when he was only 4 years old! He has worked extensively all over Europe performing, leading VV workshops, summer camps and activities.
Running concurrently with Giuseppe’s workshop at the Arena Theatre Something Else was going on. No, it’s not a mystery or a secret, it’s the title of Deafinitely Theatre’s new production for 3 – 6 year olds based on the popular children’s book written by Kathryn Cave and illustrated by Chris Riddell. Directed by Paula Garfield, the play is about a small creature who lives his life always trying to fit in. But he never does, because he’s Something Else. Playing to sold out audiences is nothing new to Deafinitely Theatre, and Friday’s performance was no exception.
On Friday evening a mysterious group of people started to arrive at Light House all conspicuously dressed in assorted shades of red, the ladies looking stunning in their red dresses and the men dapper in their red bow ties. These were none other than Zebra staff all kitted out to celebrate Deaffest’s 10th festival and the launch of the weekend. MP for Wolverhampton South West Rob Marris came along to join in the celebration. Later on, the circus themed atmosphere on the courtyard was alive with twinkling fairy lights, bunting, wine and laughter as a record number of guests gathered for the evening ahead. And this was where the red dress-code unexpectedly came into its own. Deaffest staff carrying out their organisational duties and trying to find each other in the crowds found those bright red flashes of colour an easy way to spot colleagues across the packed courtyard!
In the main cinema long serving and much loved TV presenter Clive Mason welcomed the audience with his usual enchanting style as the evening got underway. First on stage with an inspiring speech marking the 10th Anniversary of Deaffest were Marilyn Willrich and Nikki Stratton the Co-Founders of Deaffest. The ladies then handed over to the Chair of the University of Wolverhampton Board of Governors, Dr Simon Walford, who represented the University as Deaffest’s main sponsor this year. Dr Walford commented on the University’s unique position as a learning establishment where Deaf students do not need to feel isolated as it has one of the largest communities of Deaf university students in the UK.
Clive then took to the stage to give the audience a background history of the Ben Steiner Film Bursary, leading in to the screening of the Bursary winner Teresa Garratty’s film The Quiet Ones. The film, a tense who-dunnit, follows the police interrogations of deaf suspects in a murder case. As the final scene came into play revealing a clever twist, the audience stirred into appreciative applause. The film director, Teresa, then took to the stage to make herself available for a full question and answer session with the audience. Questions ranged from technical ones to those about her creative vision and her experience of winning the Ben Steiner Film Bursary. With Teresa giving detailed, honest and thought provoking answers.
Next, Deaffest again welcomed special guests Listen With Your Eyes who delighted the whole audience with their irreverent humour, this time around more tailored to an adult audience and even more hilarious! This play just has to be seen to be believed. Deaffest are so fortunate to have had them here in the UK.
Clive wrapped up the evening with a reminder about all the events and activities throughout the coming weekend. Then as guests gathered out in the courtyard for the Deaffest Launch Networking Party, one more surprise was in store for them. The air erupted with live rock music as the Amazing Beethoven’s Nightmare deaf rock band all the way from the USA gave a two song taster of what to expect at Saturday’s Late Night Deaf Party celebrations! Now there was even more to look forward to!
Saturday 16th May 2015
An early 8.30am start saw stallholders at the Deaffest fair bustling about with boxes of goods and tablecloths, seeking electrical points and wifi passwords, and finally setting up their stalls and activities ready for the influx of visitors around 9am. Visitors were welcomed with Deaffest goodie bags and were soon milling around the courtyard chatting and buying from a colourful spectrum of stalls ranging from handmade jewellery, crafts, cakes and savouries, books and goods. Sold by independent deaf artists and makers from across the UK, Europe and even as far afield as South Africa! In addition to this the wide range of professional Deaf organisations offered invaluable information and networking opportunities. It was soon apparent that 2015 was by far the most well attended festival yet.
Screenings showing films in all the film award categories took place throughout the day, giving audiences the opportunity to get up to date with the nominated films ready for the Film Awards Gala red carpet event that evening.
Another main focus for many visitors to Deaffest was the opportunity to attend the range of workshops and seminars available at the festival, all easily accessible for deaf participants in BSL and led by deaf professionals. These included an hour long BDAYouth (British Deaf Association Youth) workshop teaching International Sign, a Sign Song workshop led by prominent performer Jayne Fletcher, further VV workshops led by Giuseppe Giuranna, a seminar on Deafhood by scholar Dr Paddy Ladd, a Sign Poetry workshop led by Richard Carter, and an editing workshop led by media expert Bim Ajadi.
For younger Deaffest fans there was an all day workshop for 5 – 11 year olds with sessions by Handprint Theatre and Deafinitely Theatre. This was followed by Young Deaffest which packed out cinema seats. After an introduction by MC of Young Deaffest Ashley Kendall, Assistant Producer at Flashing Light Productions, the Young Deaffest award was presented by TV presenter and actress Donna Mullings, the event was an exciting one with the winning film A Love Divided by Solar Bear Deaf Youth Theatre, coming a well deserved first. The films were judged by film director William Mager who praised all the films nominated. Runners up were the NDCS (National Deaf Children’s Society) with Legend of Ghost Wolf and the NDCS Get Creative Deaffest News Reports.
Other high profile events included a BSLBT (British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust) lively discussion panel and a thought provoking Women Filmmaker’s Discussion. Both where well attended and led to many a conversation about the future of deaf people working in the media.
In order to fit in all these events and screenings, Deaffest was deeply grateful for the support from two other Wolverhampton venues; the Arena Theatre and the University of Wolverhampton, who provided spaces for many of the festival’s activities to take place.
In contrast to the serious talks inside the cinemas, outside in the courtyard there was sunshine, bustle and fun as the Vibemasters stall from South Africa (AKA the Listen With Your Eyes team!) educated passers-by in the art of poi (twirling weighted streamers). They gave a mesmerizing performance (on stilts no less!!) which engaged groups of young people who all seemed to pick up the skill surprisingly quickly.
A short one and a half hour recess saw everyone back for the main event of the weekend The Deaffest 2015 Film Awards Gala. Doors opened at 7.30pm, and a crowd had gathered on the red carpet well dressed and raring to go all over again!
The evening began with a solo dance by Billy Read, whose professional career was launched here at Deaffest back in 2011. The Film Awards were hosted by iconic Deaf Television Presenter Clive Mason who led the packed cinema audience through the evening’s events as Deaffest welcomed on stage a host of deaf artists and performers: the hilarious Matt Gurney performing for Deafinitely Theatre’s HUB Showcase, Giuseppe Giuranna displaying exquisite VV skills, dancers Billy Read with Ava Marissa Blake, and comedian John Smith on good form with his unique take on the deaf world. John was among the many guests at this 10th Anniversary who were present when Deaffest had its first festival in 2006!
Throughout the evening filmmakers buzzed with anticipation as each award was given. Each award was presented by a guest of honour. These included Clin d’Oeil Festival’s Director David de Keyzer, Ex Presenters of Channel 4’s Vee-TV Ahmed Mudawi, Rebecca Mansell & Nikki Stratton, Actress Sarah Beauvoisin, Comedian John Smith, Filmmaker John Maidens, Educationalist Wendy Daunt and 1980s Comedian Jerry Hanifin. Emotions ran high especially as Wendy tearfully reminded the audience of the importance of British Sign Language and Deaf culture.
The six awards were previously decided by a judge panel of film and media experts consisting of Linda Day, former director of the Centre of Deaf Studies at University of Bristol and current Director of Signworld, Tracy McCoy, senior lecturer and course leader for Video & Production in the School of Media at University of Wolverhampton, and Joel Kellhofer, director of award winning film production company AC2.com.
The winners of the Deaffest 2015 10th Anniversary Film Awards Gala were:
Best International Film: Psychiatric Maintenance directed by Jose Miguel Rodriguez
Best Documentary: Scottish Islanders directed by Camilla Arnold
Best Actress: Olivia Jordan-Caws | Tree Fairy
Best Actor: Brian Duffy | Small World
Best Director: Louis Neethling | Tree Fairy
Best British Film: Tree Fairy directed by Louis Neethling
Towards the end of the event Marilyn Willrich and Nikki Stratton, Directors of Zebra Access which runs Deaffest announced two surprise awards. The Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Media Industry went to film director and editing expert Bim Ajadi who was stunned by the unexpected accolade and made his way on stage to a standing ovation. Next was the Award for Lifetime Achievement which went to highly respected film director John Maidens.
Later on out on the courtyard the Late Night Deaf Party, hosted Marilyn Willrich, got underway with stage performances by BSL poet Richard Carter and his workshop students, freestyle dancer Chris Fonseca, Giuseppe Giuranna and Billy and Ava. Other spontaneous appearances by Jerry Hanifin, Ashley Kendall, Louis Neethling and many more were greeted with delighted applause. Beethoven’s Nightmare the deaf rock band who had come all the way from USA to play at Deaffest made this the loudest and most memorable party anyone could remember.
Sunday 17th May 2015
The morning commenced with Young Deaffest nominated films which were screened to an enthusiastic audience, followed by a selection of non-competition films, then Dr Paddy Ladd’s seminar on Deafhood for those who missed Saturday’s slot.
The Sunday afternoon highlight for many attendees a free screening of the Marvel Film, Avengers: Age of Ultron, which filled cinema seats in record time! The movie was a real favourite with young viewers (and certain members of our own media team!)
Following this was a discussion panel led by director Louis Neethling. The panel consisted of Actor Matthew Gurney, Filmmaker David Ellington and Zebra Access’ Director Nikki Stratton. They discussed the burning issues of the deaf film making industry such as the portrayal of Deaf presenters, the lack of regional sign language in deaf films, using a BSL monitor and how actors should be provided with training.
Back in the main cinema the UK premiere of American film No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie was screened, and was extremely well received.
As early evening approached delicious aromas of Caribbean food wafted across the courtyard and the Hearts Aglow Steelpan Group could be heard bringing the sunny sounds of the Caribbean to Deaffest. Amazing floor magician Mark Barber, AKA Infiniti, stalked his victims dressed as a circus master in a tall top hat which extended his already imposing stature to improbable proportions! Beethoven’s Nightmare again rocked into the night, heard right across town and seen from afar as pulsating lights escaped through the glass roof of the Chubb Building making it truly a Light House.
Well, without a doubt this 10th Anniversary has been the biggest, the most fun, the most crowded, the most exciting and by all accounts the most appreciated Deaffest we have ever known! Our thanks go to the funders and sponsors, to those who joined in, supported, volunteered, worked hard and performed. All their dedication and enthusiasm has helped make Deaffest not only a success that will go down in Deaf history, but they have also made it a magical memory.