The clink of penny change on a sidewalk
The cuddle of coffee cups on a waitress’s tray
Love notes whispered
Sounds we take for granted
Sounds. Spoken Words. Each conducts the melodies of everyday life, but speaking the word is celebrated as the most powerful of social exchanges. In her beautifully imagined film short White Space, however, film director Maya Washington (White Space Poetry Project) gingerly dramatizes silence as the ‘other’ manner of communication in a space that privileges the spoken word: the stage. Washington shrewdly casts subtle clues that lead to an ‘opening night’ so affectionate that the heart stirs to rejoice; it has one other outlet for infinite expression.
The film opens on a street as the echoes of the night accompany a determined young man in a hoodie walking to somewhere. Matt Koskenmaki’s impassioned score forges the film’s serious almost haunting tone with bluesy bass chords dancing with percussion and the brassy buzz of the trumpet. The process of addition by subtraction produced the music’s blend Koskenmaki remembers:
I first saw the film … there was no music; it was very rare for someone to give me a short film like that … most temp in the music. [White Space] was a blank canvas, so what I did was write a lot of music–more music than was needed. When Maya came to hear what I had done, we went for low tones to [evoke] intimacy.
On the way, Koskenmaki’s musical pulses emphasize the intimacy between the young man and the writer of the uplifting phone texts he reads: “I know you can do this; Love you”; and then a plea: “Please don’t mess this up”; “Get here!!!” Cinematographer James Adolphus builds audience curiosity as he alternates between the dots of street sounds and the warm jollity of a small theater called The Alabaster located in the backroom of a laundromat. Slam Poets serve as an entertaining preface to what is to come with their respective rat-a-tat rhythms to socio-cultural critique,
You’re right! I’m overreacting to white folks who liberate they coon selves through the culture of black people replacing stereotypes in hip-hop music with caricatures from Dixie!
and smooth stylistic musings on the power of inner beauty,
No reflections on glass, shadows or shapes, pictures on the wall, or shimmering lakes can show you what you are: A truly undefinable beauty. – Tanya Alexander
Enter The Poet, the young man in the hoodie, played by deaf performance poet Ryan Lane (Dummy Hoy: A Deaf Hero; Switched at Birth). Koskenmaki stops the music, and the scene transitions from a lively night at the coffee house to an awkward but reverent silence bathed in white light.
Lane excels in this precarious moment as he laudably conveys The Poet’s self-conscious hesitancy on-stage along with his virtuosity in communication. “When we suck the sound out of the coffee house, the absence of sound becomes more intense,” reveals Washington. For approximately two minutes and nineteen seconds, The Poet transcribes the issues from his heart through his hands. It is silent. “I can’t tell you who I am without telling you where I’ve been,” he signs with such spirit and emotion that patrons nod with understanding. Washington plays Shayna, his girlfriend, whose texts are the love notes of encouragement that drive the poet past his fear.
It is without question. Lane performs his own frustration as a deaf actor navigating within a business that more often than not recognizes those who hear. The film’s chief virtue, then, is courage—the courage of the deaf artist to perform live and the courage of the audience to hear him. These diegetic collaborations are the fruits of Washington’s own collaborative labors:
Ryan and I collaborated with a hearing poet Herschel McPherson; a poet/interpreter Mona Jean Cedar; and, a deaf poet/actress Zendrea Mitchell (the woman at the train station) to create the poem in the final scene. We had to shape a poem written in spoken English into [American Sign Language] then back into English subtitles. Cinematographer James Adolphus and I thought a lot about how we wanted the audience to experience the ASL visually. [The work of] Brett Bachman (Editor) and Matt Koskenmaki (Composer) […]made the emotion of the scene tangible.
Washington reaches deeply to shift our perspective on live performance and its conventional venue. In the process, she attends to those issues that tug her own heart. “I want hearing people to […] feel a little anxious and uncomfortable, even if they aren’t sure why,” she explains, “a lot of deaf artists walk in both the hearing and deaf world. I feel like it’s time for hearing artists to do the same.” That ‘walk’, no doubt, is fragile, and as the luminous alabaster stone requires care, so does the journey taken together by the hearing and the deaf. White Space makes that happen, and in all of eight minutes and fifty seconds.
White Space is scheduled to screen at the Langston Hughes African American Film Festival in Seattle, Washington, Monday April 15 (www.langstonarts.org); the Indie Boots Film Festival in Chicago (www.indieboots.org) and the Toronto International Deaf Film and Arts Festival in May 2013 (www.tidfaf.ca).
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