Thursday 11th May


A mixed group of students from three Midlands schools arrived at the Light House Media Centre to participate in a full day of Deaffest workshops.

The morning started off with a session led by Giuseppe Giuranna teaching VV (Visual Vernacular) skills.  VV is a unique art form significant in the Deaf and signing world.  It is a form of physical theatre performed by Deaf artists in an entirely visual manner, using the entire body, iconic gestures and facial expression to tell a rhythmic story.  Feedback from Giuseppe’s workshops with children and young people shows his talent for bringing out students’ confidence to perform and express themselves.  This is an admirable achievement, taking into account that some individuals begin the session with a real lack of self-assurance.

The Deaf Art & Photography exhibition in the main gallery at Light House was available for students to visit during lunchtime.  The exhibition can be viewed throughout the whole of May (free entry).


The afternoon session was a Comedy Workshop with the ever-popular John Smith.  John has amassed a huge amount of experience throughout his professional career as a profoundly Deaf BSL user, comedian and actor.  He has toured his enormously successful shows throughout the UK, Europe and internationally.  Some of his most memorable acting roles have been in Four Deaf Yorkshiremen go to Blackpool and Still Here, for which he won an award for Best Actor at the Milan Deaf Film Festival.  All of this enables John to impart to students both his wisdom and knowledge, but also to showcase fresh and innovative ideas.  

The day ended with a happy, confident group of young people.  We hope that the inspiration and experiences gained at Deaffest will play a part in their future lives and careers.

Friday 12th May


For the 12th time, Deaffest, the UK’s annual Deaf Film & Arts Festival returned to Wolverhampton’s Light House Media Centre.  The 2017 festival falls on the biennial Film and TV Awards Gala year – the 6th so far – so, with an action-packed weekend ahead it was time to launch the proceedings.  


Following wine and refreshments in the covered courtyard, guests assembled in the main cinema to enjoy the evening’s entertainment.  This started with an exclusive screening of the Deaffest promo created by Producer Jack Smallwood, Director Bim Ajadi and Assistant Producer Matthew Shaw. This was followed by a stunning dance display by Taiwan First Deaf Dance Group in colourful costumes performing Begin to Love, a mixture of an Oriental Fan Dance combined with modern dance.  Traditionally, the opening and closing of the fan has hidden meanings and can signal the user’s intentions, like a secret language!  



Marilyn Willrich and Nikki Stratton, the Co-founders and Directors of Deaffest, introduced the Master of Ceremonies for this year – Douglas Ridloff.  Douglas came to Deaffest all the way from New York.  He is a proud resident of Brooklyn, a visual artist, poet and performer.  He is also the owner and executive director of ASL SLAM, a monthly open mic event, taking place in New York City, Washington D.C. and Chicago.  Douglas announced the theme of this year’s festival –  “Discovery” – giving the Deaffest audience a number of opportunities to discover something new in Deaf talent brought from all over the world to the UK.


The theme “Discovery” was inspired by the undiscovered deaf talent around the world. Deaffest want to give visitors of all ages the opportunity to discover something new and to be inspired by them. Deaffest is passionate about supporting and developing the talents of ambitious emerging and established deaf filmmakers and artists from the UK and across the globe and. Deaffest is also about providing inspiring role models for the deaf younger generation.


Next on stage was Chris Fonseca performing a solo dance routine.  Chris’ motto is “How Do You Know If You Don’t Try?  Dreams don’t work unless you do.  Dream it. Believe it. Achieve it”.  He launched his career at Deaffest back in 2011 and is now a hugely talented and admired freelance dancer and choreographer.  Chris has gone from strength to strength, and many in the audience recognised him from his appearances in the popular Smirnoff adverts.


Following Chris was Sean Forbes, giving a fabulous rap performance.  A special guest all the way from Detroit, Sean is a musician, an entertainer, and co-founder of Deaf Performing Arts Network – D-PAN, which makes music accessible to the deaf community in American Sign Language.  DPAN.TV is a channel for sign language videos that produces news programmes featuring Deaf News Anchors. Among his many achievements, he released a music album with the same label that produced Eminem, and he has danced with Marlee Matlin!


Rachel Shenton with Chris Overton.

Next, Deaffest was proud to screen a special feature – an exclusive interview with Rachel Shenton.  Deaffest has recently been lucky enough to enlist the wonderful Rachel as its Patron.  Rachel is a British actress known for Hollyoaks and now starring in the hit US TV show Switched at Birth.  Aside from acting, Rachel is a confident user of BSL.  Deaffest was delighted to be given an exclusive interview with Rachel, and the premiere showing of this was screened.  During the interview the audience could see for themselves what a warm and down-to-earth person Rachel is, and a committed advocate of raising deaf awareness.  

Rachel has also written a film script based on a true story of a deaf girl, Libby, born to hearing parents.  The family are uneducated about their daughter’s deafness, until they employ the help of a deaf-specialised social worker.  After the interview was screened an impressed audience welcomed Rachel up onto stage. Rachel told them a little more about her film, The Silent Child, which is currently under production. She went on to introduce a behind-the-scenes movie documenting the making of the film.  Accompanying Rachel on stage was the star of The Silent Child, 6 year old Maisie Sly.


The mood was then lifted when the next screening was of the world’s first BSL TV comedy sketch show, based on Deaf life.  With a cast of Deaf actors and comedians, Deaf Funny (written and directed by Charlie Swinbourne, funded by The British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust and produced by Juggle Productions) had the audience laughing out loud as they recognised the humour in situations that can only happen to deaf people.  

Douglas brought the entertainment to a close with a beautiful sign poem of his own.  Ending on a high note, the audience made their way out into the courtyard, where networking and floor entertainment with the amazing magician InFiNiTi, also known as Mark Barber, continued until late.  Meanwhile, two more optional screenings IPEK and Silence continued in the cinema for those whose main interest was in films.


Saturday 13th May


On Saturday, while film screenings commenced in the main cinema, the Deaffest Stalls Fair began early – a busy courtyard full of colourful stalls, with hard working volunteers and staff criss-crossing the cobbles on purposeful missions.  Visitors could browse the aisles for arts and crafts, delicious food, activities, new technology, and to source useful information from deaf-related businesses.  

The main gallery drew in visitors to view the Deaf Art & Photography Exhibition with works on display throughout the whole of May.  Later on, the exhibiting artists gave short public talks about the inspiration and techniques behind their work, answering questions from an interested crowd of viewers.


Dominic MacNeill shared about his photography work.


Over in the Lock Works Cafe, something eerie was happening.  Three eccentric looking ladies seated at one of the tables were mixing sinister ingredients and reciting a spell to summon the spirit of Shakespeare!  Any concerned onlookers soon realised that this was nothing to worry about.  It was just Macbrew, an exciting new theatre piece for families that brings together Shakespeare, British Sign Language and spoken English.  Designed to be performed in a cafe setting, the three characters, based on the weird sisters of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, held their audience in awe from start to finish!

Photographers Mark Mecklenburgh and Diana Martin were seen with their cameras, capturing some wonderful shots throughout the day.


Meanwhile, workshops were underway, with an Acting Masterclass led by award-winning actor, director, and screenwriter Brian Duffy, and well-known USA actor from Switched at Birth, Sean Berdy.  Participants, whether experienced or aspiring actors, were able to take the opportunity to learn valuable acting techniques from these talented and humorous actors.  


Running alongside this was the ever-popular Visual Vernacular workshop held by Giuseppe Giuranna.  Giuseppe originally hailing from Italy and living in Berlin, gave students aged over 18 a unique learning experience in the fascinating art of VV from a world expert.


Back out on the courtyard two old ladies were causing a rumpus!  If they thought anyone among Deaffest’s visitors were slouching, flirting or holding hands then they would intervene and tell them off! The ladies got flirty with Ruaridh Lever-Hogg, who previously featured on BBC’s The Big Painting Challenge. They were also seen being their mischievous selves with the Director of Clin d’oeil festival David de Keyzer! Their aim was to uphold moral standards, but in this case they were certainly letting their hair down, and making everyone laugh! The old ladies were Vamos Theatre’s Crimplene Crusaders – a walkabout entertainment duo consisting of two deaf actors sporting the iconic Vamos masks.  Many photos were taken by amused visitors!



The Studio Cinema was the place to go for visitors interested in the Performing Arts.  Here, Sean Forbes delivered a presentation on D-PAN, Deaf Performing Arts Network.  Sean’s experience in the world of music and entertainment, and his role in co-founding D-PAN, enabled him to give a fascinating and inspiring account showing what Deaf performers can achieve.  


One of the main daytime events began at 12.30 pm – Young Deaffest.  This year, the event was hosted by presenters from Up For It?, BSL Zone’s fantastic new kids programme – Mia Ward and Rosie Benn. The audience had the opportunity to see the entries and winners of the Young Deaffest Film Award and the Poster Competition.

Award-winning filmmaker, writer and BBC See Hear Series Producer, William Mager was the Young Deaffest Film Judge and Award Presenter. William presented the Best Young Deaffest Film to SSL directed by Olivia & Chloe.

Visual artist and creative workshop facilitator Christopher Sacre announced 1st, 2nd and 3rd places for the Art Poster Award and presented the Award, including a £50 Amazon voucher to the winner: Katrina!


1st place: Katrina

2nd place: Molly

3rd place: Stephanie

Congratulations to the winners, we would like to thank those who sent in their fantastic films and posters.

There was also a special feature – Deaffest’s Signed Song Music Video and it was the first of its kind to be produced in the UK, involving a collaboration of deaf artists from the USA and the UK. The video starred Rosa Lee Timm (from the USA) and Chris Fonseca (from the UK), along with deaf children that attended the NDCS’ Raising the Bar event.  Raising the Bar is a project that celebrates the success of deaf young performers.  It gives young stars from all over the UK the opportunity to meet leading deaf professionals in the arts industry and to perform on stage together. You can read more about the project here.


The next event in the main cinema was An Afternoon with Sean Berdy – a presentation by the popular American actor from Switched at Birth.  Sean delivered a motivational speech using warmth and humour to inspire audiences, referring to his own compelling life story as an example of what one can achieve if they set aside limitations and never stop believing in themselves.  Following this, Sean made himself available out on the courtyard and visitors formed a long queue to say hello and get a photo with him!

John Smith’s Comedy Workshop, meanwhile, had participants trying their skills at a comedy performance, encouraged by tips and inspiration.  John, a well known British Deaf comedian and actor has a unique mastery of the comedy genre, which he has gained by touring his hugely successful shows throughout the UK, Europe and internationally.

Throughout the day, screenings of films in all 9 of the award categories took place, giving audiences the opportunity to become familiar with the nominated films, in readiness for the Gala Awards red carpet event that evening.  Light House projection staff Jas Kapur and Brian Short, and Zebra’s Matthew Shaw of the Deaffest media team, ensured everything in the cinema ran smoothly.


Over at the Grand Theatre, kids aged 5 – 11 took part in Young Deaffest workshops.  Vamos Theatre’s deaf actor-practitioners lead a relaxed and fun session, which aimed to familiarise 8 – 11 year old participants with the basic rules of the mask and the skills and awareness required to tell a story without words.

For 5 – 7 year olds, Star Dazzle Parties led by Katie and Hayley Mogford was a fun, interactive party based on the power of Superheroes.  The session consisted of themed games based on Superhero characters, as well as a fun arts and crafts project.


The last event of the day took place on the main stage – a discussion panel with audience participation.  The International Creative Collaborations panel aimed to look at ways in which deaf artists, filmmakers and actors could work collaboratively with professionals abroad.  The panel members were a mixture of filmmakers and performance artists led by Co-Founder and Director of Deaffest Marilyn Willrich.  Louis Neethling, Nadia Nadarajah, David de Keyzer, Giuseppe Giuranna and Stacy Lawrence were animated in discussing topics such as: Is there a lack of international collaboration currently, and if so, why?  Other discussions were about finding and establishing international working relationships, identifying beneficial working relationships and the opportunities this offers, and the potential barriers and difficulties in building and maintaining international working relationships.  

As the stimulating events of the day came to a close Deaffest staff were once again full of praise for the amazing team of volunteers led by hard-working Volunteer Coordinator Deirdre Maguire.  They took on roles such as organising the registration desk, assisting with workshops and activities, acting as communicators on the stalls and in the bar and café, facilitating room and stage set-ups, and liaising with artists and performers.  

Likewise, the Deaffest Interpreters whose professionalism, dedication to excellence and sheer hard work won them admiration from all.   

Film and TV Awards Gala


The media crew preparing for the filming on Saturday evening.


The Deaffest volunteers!

The eagerly anticipated main event of the festival weekend was Deaffest 2017 – the 6th Film and TV Awards Gala.  Following refreshments and chat on the courtyard, visitors packed into the cinema looking forward to seeing a total of 9 awards up for grabs throughout the evening ahead. Tickets were sold out, and a very exciting buzz was felt in the cinema, especially as the inspiring Deaffest promo video was shown.


Following this, the Taiwan First Deaf Dance Group, in swirling and jangling costume, performed Dancers – a show stopping piece representing what group leader Lin Chinglan set out to do when founding the group. The dance showed the power and beauty of the dancer’s spirit and the culmination of their journey from non-dancers to the trendsetting, hardworking professionals they are today, regularly seen on television and stage performances across Taiwan.

Next on stage were Nikki Stratton & Marilyn Willrich to welcome Douglas Ridloff, again, as host for the evening.  


Douglas introduced the evening’s events, which began with a new collaborative performance by two experts in their own fields: comedian John Smith and VV artist Giuseppe Giuranna.  The performance had everyone laughing as each entertainer tried to teach the other their skills.  Uproarious results ensued, including a lot of wet faces in the audience, courtesy of John’s famous gold water pistol, which seemed to have a mind of its own!

The awards presentations got underway with the first of Deaffest’s special guests of honour, the Mayor of Wolverhampton and the Lady Mayoress Barry and Margaret Findley.  They presented the awards for Best Actress and Best Actor.


American Rap artist Sean Forbes came on stage next, inspiring the audience with his powerful rap performance Watch These Hands.

Two more award presentations followed, those for Best Screenwriter, presented by former local councillor Rob Marris, and Best Artistic Short Film, presented by David de Keyzer, Director of the international Clin d’oeil Festival in Reims, France.


The next entertainment slot was a collaboration between rap performer Sean Forbes and British freestyle dancer Chris Fonseca, whose individual styles combined to great effect and produced a memorable performance.


After the interval the evening continued with the award for Best Documentary, presented by programme maker and campaigner Terry Riley OBE, shortly followed by Best Director, presented by filmmaker and BBC See Hear Series Producer William Mager.

Sign Singer Colin Thomson took the stage after this as he performed his two songs about the power of sign language and the deaf community, which gained him a standing ovation, with many a tearful eye in the crowd.


Following this, the Directors of Deaffest Nikki Stratton and Marilyn Willrich gave the award for Best Television Programme and the award for Best UK Short Film was presented by Deaffest’s new patron Rachel Shenton.  

Dancer Chris Fonseca then gave a fantastic solo performance, leading up to the last award – for Best Film, which was presented by American celebrity Sean Berdy.


The winners of the Deaffest 2017 Film and TV Awards were:

Best Actress: Lynn Stewart-Taylor | Honeymoon

Best Actor: Matthew Gurney | Small World

Best Screenwriter: Norma McGilp | Deaf Victorians

Best Artistic Short Film: The Song for Single | Zheng Xiaosan

Best Documentary: Silent Laughs | Natalia Kouneli

Best Director: Erik Akervall | The Hunter

Best Television Programme: Best Coast | Erik Akervall

Best UK Short Film: Dawn of the Deaf | Rob Savage

Best Film: For Grace | Sebastian Armesto


A judging panel of film and media experts consisting of John Finn,Julian Peedle-Calloo, Lesley McGilp and Michael Ford decided the winners of the 9 awards.


Cirque VV actors Steve Webb and David Sands were on stage next, with a performance of scenes from Braveheart and Titanic, which included a fusion of Visual Vernacular styles and traditional comedy theatre.

To close the evening, Douglas gave another of his exquisite poems, which made observations on deafness along with the beauty of sign language.

As the audience made their way out into the courtyard where the Late Night Deaf Party was beginning to warm up, photographers Penny and Mark Mecklenburgh captured some fantastic shots of the guests and award winners on the cinema stage.  

Out in the courtyard and in the Lock Works Bar, crowds were starting to gather. Actor and comedian Matt Gurney, as Master of Ceremonies, led a courtyard stage packed with entertainment including Giuseppe Giuranna with further VV performances, Colin Thomson giving more of his celebrated signed songs, and even a Sign Karaoke competition with members of the audience coming up on stage to perform. The winner of the Sign Karaoke was William Johnson who took home a £50 cash prize! In the reception area of the Light House a fun portrait photoshoot was held by photographer Penny Mecklenburgh.

Other artists on stage were Sean Forbes’ Deaf and Loud band with a fantastic live rap set that got everybody dancing!  The Taiwan First Deaf Dance Group performed again, looking stunning in the floodlights.  An open stage towards the end welcomed members of the audience up on stage to give a multitude of live acts.

Festivities and entertainment continued until the early hours with revellers finally leaving at around 4am!

Sunday 14th May

Blue skies and sunshine greeted Sunday visitors to Deaffest as many flocked to the Lock Works Cafe to continue catching up with one another.

Technical Supervisor & Projectionist Jas Kapur, Communications Technician Matthew Shaw and projectionist & Technical Support Brian Short got events underway with Young Deaffest film screenings, followed by non-competition films.  Mid morning saw the cinema seats fill up in anticipation of a couple of hours of pure excitement with Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 feature film.

More non-competition films followed, with further chat and farewells out on the courtyard before visitors departed, travelling back to all corners of the UK and overseas. 

Deaffest would like to thank all of you who took part this year, whether as volunteers, artists, performers, workshop leaders, participants, audience members, interpreters, stallholders, judges, or award presenters.  Each and every one of you plays a part in making Deaffest the amazing event that it is!


The Deaffest team