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Aug 29 / Ruth Montgomery blogspot

Festival Clin d’Oeil, France

Attracting more than 4,000 festival goers from all over the world, attendees including myself travelled to the Clin d’Oeil which is the largest Deaf festival in Europe celebrating the richness and diversity of the arts in Deaf Culture held on the 2nd – 5th July 2015 in Reims, France.

Browsing through the exciting festival brochure, it promises a multidisciplinary and multilingual program promoting D/deaf artists worldwide.  With the support of local authorities in Reims as well as partnerships in wider circles; its 1st edition began in 2003 and is held biannually. CineSourds organises the Festival Clin d’Oeil and has become famous because of the artistic quality it demands in many fields: drama, films, shows, dance, exhibitions and concerts. 

When I arrived, the main venue for registration, badges, maps and exhibition stands were packed!  Everyone was buzzing away with so many hands making conversations.  I began bumping into people I knew from the UK and further afield.  Sign Language was out at its fullest force and it was possible to switch from native language to using international signs and gestures when having full blown conversations with others from different parts of the world.

Accessibly and exchange for everyone at the festival was high on the agenda with the presentation of several bilingual shows, sign translators, live subtitling system, magnetic loops, wheelchair ramps and so on. Staff and volunteers were ready on hand to provide assistance whenever needed.  There were children and young people’s workshops, leaving adults to go off to enjoy theatre performances, watch films and browse art exhibitions in the daytime.

Once I got my festival pass I couldn’t wait to see everything.  It seems that in the last two or three decades Deaf culture is enjoying a steep rise in the number of professional actors, dancers, film producers and theatre directors making their mark through public recognition and social media.  I also wanted to see if the rise of progress for music and deaf musicians are following a similar rate in Deaf culture, so Clin d’Oeil was a good opportunity to find out.

Generally music is used in theatre – it can dramatise significant moments, pull heart strings and even fill up the dead air during scene changes.  Plays that are performed in the UK by established companies backed by big budgets are tailor made for the mainstream audiences on both sides – deaf and hearing.  This means using sign language, speech, voice-overs, music, background sound fillers, and even projected text displays.

I have watched sold-out performances by local deaf drama groups in British Sign Language, and the only noises that can be heard are the footsteps of the actors, some shouting, and furniture scraping about. This would only be accessible for the sign language minority.  Both contrasting descriptions are exactly what I found to be similar at Clin d’Oeil.

I enjoyed watching a powerful true story based on the character ‘Fritz Moen’ serving nearly 19 years in prison for the two murders he didn’t commit.  With only five male actors (2 deaf, 3 hearing) from Theatre Manu in Norway, we watched some mock attempted signs by police officers and loud dancing nightclub music.  The hearing actors made the story feel all the more real when they convincingly intimated a low deep deaf voice.  It was a such a moving story as no one wished to take individual responsibility for what happened to Fritz Moen, the case is by many bloggers labelled as the worst example of police and prosecution cowardice in European history.

The incredible grisly and bloody gruesome performance of ‘The Holy Butcher’ was done by 6 professional deaf actors from IVT (International Visual Theatre) in French/International Sign language with French voice-over in the background. Towards the end a requiem sang out in Italian with French subtitles (the only time it appeared) to summarise the deep painful complex of the story.  It shows that even opera types of music can make its way in.  I liked the way the actors signed in an operatic manner so convincing and bold.

Mime also made its way onto the lineup at Clin d’Oeil.  With their amazing costumes, masks and gothic looking make-up, the Belgian actors teleported us, the audience back to the 1920s Buster Keaton era of silent movies with their story of ‘Monsters’. There were absolutely no talking, lip movements or signing, but the warbling sounds of the live organ music mirrored and followed their every move and emotion. I felt guided by that most of the time too. I do not know if the actors were deaf or hearing but it was wholly irrelevant.  At the end of the 65 minute performance everyone rose to give a standing ovation. 

Some other theatre plays were performed in just sign language alone. Sometimes actors used visual vernacular (VV). Visual vernacular is a highly innovative visual storytelling method derived from sign language on the visual aspects and expanding on it, in an exaggerated sense if you like.  With no other sound distractions, you watch stories come alive and notice the finer detail in facial expressions, the structure, body language, speed of arm movements, experience moments of tease, pull, excitement and anticipation.

As the blazing hot summer sun went down, hundreds crammed together to enjoy a night of extravaganza and dance, flashing lights, loud music with strong vibrating bass beat and sign songs at the Deaf party.

Dancers of Taiwan, Redeafination from Singapore, and Nikita from Germany performed many aspects of hip-hop involving brilliant footwork, radical movement of the hip, energy and team synchrony. You could see culture through their costumes changes such as the rodeo dance, marital arts actions, and Chinese opera. Some of their dance moves were spiced with sign language with an emphasis on musicality, passion and spirit. 

I was so excited when Chris Fonseca and Semhar Beyene representing Great Britain appeared on stage.  I’ve known Semhar from school and it was just great to see her gracing up the stage with Chris in Street Dance.  The moves were totally choreographed by themselves with the influence of the music and story. Their performance reflected on how fast digital technology can compromise the quality of human interaction between lovers.

Everyone reacted in a big way when the Swiss duo ‘Sign Singers’ Ragna Huse and Ditte Gaarde appeared on stage.  After speaking to a few people, they remarked that their popularity is largely due to the fact they use International Sign Language and performing very well-known works such as the Beatles, Pet Shop Boys and Fame.  My eyes were fixated for the whole time as they beautifully conveyed messages in the song and being rhythmically in tune to that too.

I did wonder about the duo ever writing their own songs, but the audiences do like to watch and join in ‘old school’ types of music with a sense of knowing and following it. I know that I did! 

Although there weren’t any performing deaf instrumentalist (for example a pianist/ drummer/ violinist) in the programme over the weekend, I can confidently say that music is very much part of Deaf culture.  They do enjoy it and acknowledge it.   In the past Clin d’Oeil had the Finnish Rap duo Signmark (deaf and hearing) performing their own songs, also a band called ‘Beethoven’s Nightmare’ from Hawaii with a deaf drummer and some deaf guitarists rocking the audiences.

One of my friends at Deaf party said I should consider playing my flute on stage.  I thought about it but  I think  the flute alone offers little in terms of accessibility and visibility.  However I could expand my ideas and merge the flute with sign language.  It is clear from the festival that Deaf people already possess an inherent aptitude for rhythmic movement through the use of sign language.  With sign language, the flow of hand movements and facial expressions show us the shape of ideas, just as the notes of a musical score represent the shape of sounds and silences.  All this can be extended in Deaf Arts.  Hmm, who knows?  I had a blast at Clin d’oeil and will see you again in 2017!

My trip to Clin d’Oeil was supported by Culture in Essex with appreciation and thanks.  

Related Links –

Essex Arts in Culture
Clin d’Oeil
Sign Singers
Semhar and Chris

Beethoven’s Nightmare
Theatre Manu
VIT – Butcher