Deaffest, the UK’s increasingly popular annual Deaf Film and Arts Festival, returned to Wolverhampton’s Light House on the 6th – 8th May for the 11th time. Blessed with good weather yet again, the festivities began with the annual launch event, which took place on the warm and sunny Friday evening.
Crowds gathered in the bustling courtyard enjoying wine and refreshments, chat and networking as a mixture of deaf filmmakers, media experts, actors, artists and members of the community plus staff and volunteers met up once more to renew old friendships and cement new ones. The theme for 2016 was “A Celebration of Deaf Comedy”, with the venue adorned in a stunning array of Deaffest 2016 banners and balloons so that everyone was in the mood for enjoying themselves and anticipating the weekend ahead. Local MP Rob Marris was to be seen mingling and also spotted were a film crew taking shots as part of a special project…
Earlier in the day – at precisely 11am to be exact – a team of film and media volunteers, overseen by Producers Jack Smallwood and Matthew Shaw of Zebra Uno, had taken up the “Deaffest 72 Hour Film Challenge”, asking the question “Is it possible to make a short documentary about Deaffest 2016 in 72 hours??” The team, called ‘Oh Sugar’ Productions would be filming throughout the festival weekend, with the completed film to be revealed on the Deaffest website.
Co-founders of Deaffest Nikki Stratton and Marilyn Willrich
As the clock neared 8pm people started making their way into the cinema for the start of the evening’s entertainment. Events began with the first comedy performance of the weekend – Matt Gurney – giving the audience a very blunt and funny account of an actor’s life on stage and off. Matt wondered why people aren’t blunt enough in everyday life, instead striving to be too nice which he thought could end up seeming fake. His own sign name ‘blunt’ became very popular throughout the evening! Matt enjoyed winding up the audience, informing each half to stand up when he told them to, proceeding only to make one half stand up and down repeatedly!
Marilyn Willrich and Nikki Stratton the co-founders of Deaffest and directors of Zebra Uno and Zebra Access were hosts for the evening, and after welcoming the audience and introducing the weekend’s activities, they gave a heart-warming talk about the importance of Deaf comedy. This was followed by a celebration of the 35th Anniversary of the BBC programme See Hear, introduced by award-winning writer and filmmaker William Mager, who has been a Series Producer for See Hear for the last 3 years. William talked about the history of See Hear, explaining how challenging it is to be a Series Producer, and the pressures which the programme sometimes comes under. He praised his team and their diverse talents that bring such high quality to the programme. He also expressed disappointment for members of the public who sometimes approached him purposefully to say that they didn’t watch See Hear – not appreciating all the hard work that goes into this iconic deaf monthly programme.
Comedian Matt Gurney took to the stage again for his next performance – or should that be Rinkoo Barpaga’s performance? The two comedians fought it out on stage over who should be on next, with Rinkoo succeeding. He went on to share funny stories about his family, especially his young niece who could not understand the conception of deafness and became angry when Rinkoo did not pay attention to her when she was singing at a family get together!
Next was another celebration, this time of the British Deaf Association who celebrated their 125th Anniversary last year, 1890 – 2015. A special documentary film made to mark the Anniversary entitled “Power in our Hands” was screened, featuring both rare archive footage and new interviews showing the journey of the Deaf community throughout the 20th century. It was introduced by Alexy Dury – the BDA’s Access and Inclusion (Heritage) Officer for the Midlands.
After an inspiring, funny and interesting evening the audience made its way back out of the cinema with plenty to discuss as the networking party continued until 1.30am. The magician Mark Barber aka ‘Infiniti’, invited to Deaffest year after year because of his wonderful way of engaging with the audience, again managed to amaze everyone with his tricks and magic out on the courtyard!
Bright and early on a sunny Saturday morning stallholders, staff and volunteers arrived to get the stalls fair started and the day’s events underway. Before long colourful stalls were appearing all over the courtyard, displaying goods being sold by independent deaf artists and makers including cakes, foodstuffs, arts & crafts, and information from a wide selection of professional organizations. Adding to the array were exhibition stands and banners erected by companies who had sponsored Deaffest. After a short while it was obvious to see the stalls fair was going to be a very busy one, with crowds gathering around unusual stalls like Infinite Wisdom Studios with their 3D Virtual Reality goggles and the NDCS’ smoothie making exercise bikes! With visitors joining the throng from all over the UK, Israel, Spain, Hong Kong and even Japan, the scene was exciting and truly multi-national!
Nikki Stratton greeted the Deaffest sponsors as they arrived and presented those who were eligible with copies of the Deaffest 10th Anniversary Album and lovely china mugs decorated with the Deaffest Anniversary logo as part of their sponsorship package.
Over in the main gallery the Deaf Art and Photography exhibition was attracting a lot of notice. The artists’ work had been installed at the beginning of May to remain for the whole month, but today some of the artists Kathryn Sawbridge, Alex Orlov, and Maciej Janowski were giving talks about their work. This attracted quite a large crowd of people who were interested to learn about the inspiration and techniques behind the art.
Maciej surprised Deaffest’s PR Liaison Officer Lou with a gift of one of his paintings – a beautiful piece of work which he presented to Lou along with the Deaffest team as a thank you for organising the exhibition and for the opportunity to show his work.
Meanwhile short films made by deaf filmmakers from the UK and around the world were being screened and viewed by the audience in the main cinema. The Young Deaffest Award followed at 2pm with Nikki Stratton announcing the shortlisted pieces of artwork and the top three winners in the Young Deaffest Poster Competition. Lou Buglass PR Liaison Officer at Deaffest, and Jackie Law, Deaffest Coordinator were two of the judges, and we were honoured to have as the third, Marcus Dickey Horley, Curator of Public Programmes at Tate Modern & Tate Britain.
The award for first place went to Jade who came up on stage to receive her certificate and prize of a £50 Amazon voucher. Second place went to Daniels and third place went to Viktoria – big congratulations to them!
To complete the Young Deaffest event there was the eagerly awaited performance by Solar Bear Youth Theatre who came all the way from Glasgow. This was a brilliant and humorous adaptation of the traditional Red Riding Hood story in sign language.
An hour’s break was followed by two film seminars. The first, “How to Finance your Film” led by Infinite Wisdom Studios Producer Michael Ford, was a seminar about pitching film and TV ideas to potential broadcasters or studios, and raising funds for your film. The second was “Be Creative With Your Film”, a panel discussion exploring ways to enhance your filmmaking through the use of special effects and animation, packed with tips from the panel with Nikki Stratton hosting this seminar along with Animators Paul Miller, Michael Ward and Giles Bowman, Filmmaker/Actress Fifi Garfield and Infinite Wisdom Studios Producer Michael Ford.
The University of Wolverhampton organised tours of the city campus, led by their own student volunteers. These were intended to give visitors a flavour of the courses and educational opportunities open to young deaf and hearing people visiting Deaffest. Jon Elsmore, Dean of Students at the University was delighted with the amount of interest.
Finishing off the day’s events at Light House was a seminar by the BDA (British Deaf Association) all about their documentary film “Power in our Hands,” which was screened on Friday night. Representatives from the film discussed the ground-breaking project, exploring the making of the film and the way it has been received by Deaf and hearing audiences. They also gave an insight into the wider archive project and the fundraising for it, highlighting the importance of preserving sign language on film, and the ways in which filmmakers can access archive material for use in their own work.
These seminars, workshops, panel discussions and activities were all put in place to give deaf people the opportunity to acquire training and expertise at the festival in an easily accessible format presented in BSL and led by deaf professionals.
Light House, buzzing with activity soon attracted the attention of the local newspaper the Express and Star, who sent over a reporter to interview directors Nikki Stratton & Marilyn Willrich.
Meanwhile, over at the Arena Theatre the day’s events were very busy indeed! The Kids All Day Workshops included (for the group 5 – 8 years) a Comedy Craft Session and BSL Story-Time with Miss Curly (aka the wonderful Avril Langard-Tang), whose outfit was in the style of eccentric librarian meets Nanny McPhee! Her elongated shoes could be felt vibrating along the floor as she walked! Also in this age group was a Magic Hands Workshop led by CBeebies presenter Ashley Kendall and comedy mayhem with world renowned Deaf comedian John Smith. The afternoon session, Stardazzle Parties, run by the multi-talented Katie Mogford and her sister Hayley was a fun, interactive party based on the magic of Disney.
Ashley Kendall and Nikki Stratton
The older children (aged 9-11) took part in a comedy workshop also led by John Smith, where they tried out their skills based on John’s tips and inspiration. At the end of the morning session the children performed their comedy to an audience, which included some of their parents and also the younger group. In the afternoon they participated in a Mask Performance Workshop led by the amazing Vamos Theatre. Rachael Savage the Artistic Director of Vamos familiarised participants with the basic rules of the mask, ‘hot seating’ (a way to develop on-stage character), using mask in performance, and the skills and awareness involved in telling a story without words.
Also held at Arena were a couple of workshops for adults; one was led by the ever-popular Italian VV (Visual Vernacular) professional Giuseppe Giuranna who gave students a unique opportunity to learn this fascinating art from a world expert. Giuseppe who has been a regular contributor to Deaffest over the past few years came with a new look this year. His iconic ponytail was nowhere to be seen, replaced with an eye-catching shaven head! The other workshop for adults was led by the prolific John Smith, giving some more mature tips on engaging an audience with comedy.
All through the action-packed day the wonderful Deaffest volunteers led by Deirdre Maguire were seen everywhere facilitating the whole event. Some of their roles were forming part of the media team (including the “Oh Sugar” 72 hour film challenge), organising the registration desk, assisting with workshops and activities, acting as communicators at stalls, bar and café, and generally making everything run smoothly. Deaffest cannot thank them enough for all their outstanding work!
As the day drew to a close the stalls over on Light House courtyard packed away their wares whilst visitors and staff departed to freshen up for the evening ahead. In what seemed like no time at all, staff returned hastily smartened up and ready for when doors opened again at 8pm prompt.
First up on stage were Nikki Stratton & Marilyn Willrich to welcome the hosts for the evening, presenters for the national current affairs programme BBC See Hear, Erika Jones and Sebastian Cunliffe.
Erika and Sebastian introduced the first act of the Deaffest 2016 Celebration of Deaf Comedy evening. This was Caroline Parker, comedian and sign song artist of 30 years standing. Caroline performed an hilarious sign song version of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” which got everyone in the comedy mood! Next up was Rinkoo Barpaga. Rinkoo has recently been developing his stand-up comedy career in America, and he shared more of his comedic observations on life with an appreciative audience.
Matt Gurney then gave another blunt performance, winding up one of the Deaffest interpreters who was voicing over for him. Matt complained that Alban (the interpreter) continued to talk even though Matt had finished signing. Further good-humoured banter continued between Matt and Alban, which ended up with Matt in a tantrum!
A film interlude took place next, the “Deaffest Best Comedy Clips”. To compile this, the team at Deaffest got together and came up with their favourite comedy moments from all the past festivals. Quite a few members of the audience would have recognised themselves as actors in the film clips, not to mention scriptwriters, directors, producers and many other filmmaking roles. Some of the clips brought back fond memories of the well-loved deaf comedy actor Hal Draper who died a couple of years ago.
The interval followed, after which Caroline Parker took to the stage once again, this time as a stand-up comedian, sharing stories of her hearing aid when she was young. Back then deaf people had an old fashioned hearing aid, which included a box type battery attached at the front of the chest with a wire to an earpiece. She mimed what it was like running around with it and trying to communicate with people. At Puberty with the enlargement of her chest, new difficulties arose with attaching the box! She went on to describe a different version of the hearing aid where this time the microphone was attached to her chest. With this version she had to go around sticking her chest out in order to hear people! These hilarious reminiscences could be fully appreciated by a deaf audience many of whom had memories of similar situations. She finished by imparting the sad news that when she got her modern hearing aids, men seemed to lose interest in her now that she no longer stuck her chest out!
John Smith and Giuseppe Giuranna next gave a rare duo performance, which the audience found hilarious. Both had water pistol guns (John Smith’s iconic comedy implement), so you can guess what happened next! John interviewed Giuseppe about his VV background and after a few more funny stories John and Giuseppe shared a heart-warming hug as John praised Giuseppe’s outstanding talent.
A large proportion of the audience had been eagerly awaiting the next act, which was a character from a sitcom which has recently taken the Deaf world by storm. The BSL sitcom is Small World, and the character was Chris Baker, expertly performed by actor David Sands. “Chris” came on stage in awe of being at Deaffest and having been introduced by Sebastian and Erika. He talked about his hurt when in the past he had asked Giuseppe Giuranna to watch him perform VV.
Giuseppe had taken one look and said “another time”, so now Chris was here on stage at Deaffest, with Giuseppe captive in the audience he would take this opportunity to finally show Giuseppe his VV skills! These consisted of a crazy performance which wasn’t quite VV at all and involved him rolling about on the floor shooting with an imaginary gun!
As the audience laughed and applauded Marilyn and Nikki took to the stage once again to thank everyone involved in Deaffest 2016 for making it such a thoroughly enjoyable event. More thanks went to the Deaffest volunteers who had, as always, excelled themselves and made everyone proud.
The audience then made their way out on to the courtyard for the Late Night Deaf Party. Here the bar and cafe were busy whilst a fun portrait photoshoot took place nearby, led by one of the talented Deaffest photographers Penny Mecklenburgh. Lots of people took advantage of this, ending up with keepsake shots to remember Deaffest by.
On the courtyard stage, further entertainment was taking place including Giuseppe with a different VV show. MC for the Late Party was comedian Matt Gurney who introduced the stand up comedy competition. This worked as an “open stage” where anyone could stand up and perform their own brand of comedy. Various people took part, and first place went to Max Barber in character as “Roxanne”, who received a £50 cash prize. Second place went to Jamie Rea. Festivities and entertainment continued until the early hours with revellers finally leaving at around 4am!
A thunderstorm the night before left a cooler morning for early risers making their way to Deaffest once more. Communications Technician Matthew Shaw and Projectionist & Technical Support Brian Short all started their day early in the Projection Room for 9.30am. Events started with a special screening of the full length Indian film documentary “Ishaare” (Dir. Annelies Kusters). The film documents how six Deaf signers (including one deaf-blind man) communicate with familiar and unfamiliar hearing shopkeepers, street vendors, customers, waiters, ticket conductors and fellow travellers in Mumbai.
An interval followed where visitors had a chance to meet up with each other again in the Lock Works Café courtyard where animated groups of people sat at the continental style tables and chairs set out in the sun, creating a warm and relaxing atmosphere. The “Oh Sugar” team were still hard at work however on their film with some members filming, some editing, and others with roles such as director, script supervisor, director of photography, production manager and VFX artist/graphic designer.
Following the documentary was a special screening of Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book directed by Jon Favreau, and based on Rudyard Kipling’s timeless stories. This was extremely popular with everyone especially the children in the audience, who pranced about on the courtyard as animals when the film was finished.
The sun was still shining on a gorgeous summer’s afternoon when viewers exited the cinema. A few more conversations and farewells ensued before Deaffest came to a close once again for another year.
Also a huge thank you from the Deaffest Team to all those who played a part this year, and thank you to all the visitors who joined us for Deaffest 2016 A Celebration of Deaf Comedy. Together we had a chance to forget our worries and laugh for a whole weekend!
As always – we look forward to seeing you again next year!
(Photo credits: Mark Mecklenburgh, Willow Photography Ltd and Deaffest)