An evening with two cultural events last Thursday.
Firstly we went to a film screening (indeed a UK premiere) at the Manchester Latin America and Spanish Film Festival, Una Vida sin Palabras (A Life without Words). It was a documentary about a peasant family in Nicaragua who have three deaf children (two of them already young adults). Although Nicaragua is notable for its sign language, developed autonomously by deaf people, it has not reached everywhere yet and the film was a record of a visiting sign language teacher who came to teach the young people. She herself was deaf and with no vocal language. The film was also about the family and their perspectives on having three disabled members. Perhaps more than anything it told the story of the young people’s engagement with the teacher and the teaching. The daughter, in particular resisted joining in at first. A lively group of deaf students was there, nice to be able to talk (in signs) animatedly throughout the showing!
There was a panel discussion afterwards, and unfortunately we could only stay for the first part of it. To varying degrees I thought the panellists got the film wrong. They saw it as portraying the trio as objects of pity, oppressed by an urban perspective that was also disrespectful of the campesino family’s culture. It was suggested that the young people could communicate adequately and didn’t need to learn how to sign words. I didn’t see it like this. The film I thought demonstrated a process of change on all sides. The teacher and the film did to me seem highly sensitive to the family and their achievements and support given to the young people. This was clear as we saw them carrying out various household and agricultural tasks, including plastering the kitchen and adobe oven, skills that take some teaching. The teacher started with a formal process of using flash cards, but while the younger son seemed to take to this (and the older one enjoyed the game), the daughter refused to engage, but watched the activities with interest. The teacher eventually adapted the technique and used the environment and its objects as a basis for learning, and in the case of the daughter, sharing tasks of food preparation, although still reinforcing the learning more formally.
A long sequence at the end showed the teacher crying, and as she explained (very openly to the family) this was at the loss of opportunity to learn about the world (the young people rarely left the home although the aunt and daughter went to church together). This is what occasioned the remarks from the panel about urban perspectives, lack of respect and pity. But I thought it possible to see the whole story much more positively (while resisting the temptation to romanticise: not everything was easy to watch).
1) The effort made by the teacher, and presumably the organisation she worked for, and quite possibly the government (now a reforming left government after the return of the Sandinistas) to reach remote communities, families and disabled people. This was impressive, and although we suppose the teacher’s home life was different from that of the family, this was someone who travelled miles on uncomfortable rural buses, and walked along country tracks in the searing heat.
2) The commitment of the family to the young people was evident. They weren’t portrayed as empty, ignorant vessels who didn’t know how to care for their family members, but as concerned and caring. There was none of the forced isolation that is not uncommon for disabled people in a majority world context. But their life was hard and they did show a range of emotions such as you’d expect. I couldn’t see how the film or the teacher were judgemental about them at all.
3) There was communication prior to the teaching, and this ‘natural’ communication continued, for example as the daughter indicated she didn’t want to join in, or shared humour about a biscuit she’d been given. But this was not conceptual, symbolic communication, pre-verbal children do the same thing. The title, una vida sin palabras was in this sense very apt., communicating very well, so far as it goes. But it only goes so far. Are the Nicaraguans similarly to deny prostheses to amputees because they’ve found ways to get around without them? This thinking is denialist: it does not serve people’s interests any more than treating disability as a tragedy or medical affliction, and is a misreading of the social model. One panellist criticised the teacher for teaching the names of animals. So far as I could tell this might be one of the most relevant things to learn first (the rest of the family were also learning the signs) – being able to refer to the horse or dog, or indicate that a snake was nearby strike me as relevant to their everyday life.
None of this is meant to mean that I see the intervention simply as a ‘good intervention’, evidently beneficial. I’d want to know a lot more about whether there was going to be a verbal community to support this new form of communication, and what discussions took place about the challenges that were arising and would continue to arise as lives changed. I don’t know enough about the context to judge, but I was struck by the easy ‘post-modern’ criticism of what I thought was a good film that did not try to simplify or propagandise.
As I’ve said elsewhere, the point is that an adequate approach to change, whether this is treatment, care, social reform, policy implementation or law can only come from a process of dialogue with the ‘affected’ – and from what I saw of the process there in the Nicaraguan countryside I would think that some of that might be happening, and that ‘transmodern’, ‘analectical’ process is very different from easy post-modern criticism at a film showing.
We couldn’t stay longer because we had tickets for the Band on the Wall for a concert by Gilad Atzmon, Israel-born saxophonist now based in London, who plays bebop/post-bebop with various tinges, including Arabic music. He’s an interesting critic of Zionism – I bought his book which is both philosophically and politically interesting. Another person fighting colonialist ideology-action-structure complexes. The music was very good – sketches of various world cities (including Scarborough – nice version of Scarborough Fair). Hadn’t been to Band on the Wall since the extensive refurbishment. Unlike the Thursday nights I remember from the 70s (gigs organised by the ‘Jazz centre Society’ – I think the money they raised went to a London-based project). Thankfully no smoke now and no chatter intruding from the bar area, but it also lacks the old atmosphere. Surprisingly few seats, especially upstairs. We ended up (being a bit late) on two small stools. Jazz fans still look the same though – a bit like real ale enthusiasts – easy to spot!