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Deaf Entertainers Documentary Hits All the Right Notes

April 14 2010 | by


Hilari Scarl’s See What I’m Saying is an exciting, funny, emotional and ultimately worthy addition to the rich compendium of films chronicling the deaf experience. Providing its own unique spin on the deaf film genre, the documentary explores the desire to strike it big on the stage from the perspective of a drummer, actor, comic and singer – all who happen to be deaf or hard-of-hearing.

The theme that unifies this foursome is passion for their craft. Given the challenges of their disabilities — significant hearing loss — each chooses to pursue what they enjoy, even if it means giving up safer or more appropriate career roles.

Bob Hiltermann is a school teacher by day, but by night he heads to his home garage and practices on his drums, dreaming about his next deaf rock band gig. He freely admits that teaching is “my side job, not my dream.” Robert De Mayo, an actor, performs in minor acting and teaching roles, and struggles to get by financially so he can pursue his passion.

Meanwhile, C.J. Jones is a very well-known deaf comic, but after he heartily accepts an invitation to perform at a large North Carolina black festival, he comes to the harsh realization that he’s famous only in the deaf world, not the hearing world. And singer T.L. Forsberg, who is hard-of-hearing, has better hearing abilities than the other three characters, but she struggles to find her footing in both the deaf and hearing worlds and expresses her frustrations through her singing.

See What I'm Saying posterOver the years, there have been movies and documentaries that explore the lives of people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Children of a Lesser God, starring Marlee Matlin, is perhaps the best known in this genre. Other movies have followed in Lesser God’s steps, including Mr. Holland’s Opus, Sound and Fury, Dreams Spoken Here, and Through Deaf Eyes.

This is Scarl’s first full-feature movie after producing 12 short films. Director Steven Spielberg selected Scarl as a top finalist out of 12,000 submissions for the reality TV filmmaker show, “On The Lot.” She says her inspiration for See What I’m Saying was her work with the National Theater for the Deaf in 1996, where she met “some of the most talented performers I have ever seen.” She encountered deaf and hard-of-hearing performers with genuine talent, yet, for the most part, landed only limited roles because of the general perception that they are “deaf entertainers,” not “entertainers who happen to be deaf.”

See What I’m Saying, which is open-captioned for all audiences because of the use of sign language by the performers, makes clever use of sounds, captions, and environments to help the hearing viewer get to know each of the entertainers more intimately as they live their daily lives. At times, misunderstandings between deaf and hearing people become downright hilarious, as when a conversation between De Mayo and an audience member on a New York street takes on an unintentionally sexual twist.

Some movie-goers say it was difficult to understand singer T.L. Forsberg’s struggle to “make it big” because she has excellent speech, sings beautifully and can easily carry on conversations for the most part with her hearing counterparts. In response, Scarl says hard-of-hearing audiences who viewed a promotional trailer of Forsberg approached the director with tears in their eyes, telling Scarl that the portrayal of the singer was perfectly spot-on, and illuminated the difficulties that hard-of-hearing people face as they seek acceptance in both the hearing and deaf communities.

See What I’m Saying is a solidly produced film, and Scarl does a beautiful job capturing the essence of the hard, brutal, unforgiving work that the entertainers put into pursuing their dreams in both the deaf and hearing worlds. As she strives to portray these unique characters, Scarl disproves attempts by others to pigeonhole them into ready-made labels: deaf, hard-of-hearing, or not deaf enough. “At the end of the day, we are all human,” says Scarl. “Labels are not important. It’s who you are that counts.”

See What I’m Saying (PG-13) premiered in New York City on April 9 and is now showing nationwide. It is playing with open captions. View the trailer here.  For more information, visit the official website,

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