Stories from SXSW: Films That Speak to Deaf and Hearing Audiences Alike

Editor’s Note: Lauren Knapp has been in Austin all week, reporting at the SXSW Interactive Festival. This is the first in her series of stories, with more to come all week.

Bobby Loeffler, Interpreter

Hundreds of filmmakers came to Austin, Texas, to attend the SXSW Film Festival this past weekend. Their films ranged from narrative features to short documentaries to music videos. Almost all of them had at least one thing in common: a soundtrack. But the work of deaf filmmaker, designer and animator Robyn Girard stood out from the rest of the pack.

Girard, a visual storyteller who works to bridge the gap between deaf and hearing audiences through film and animation, spoke at the SXSW Film Conference and Festival about the portrayal of deaf people in film, how popular films often perpetuate stereotypes and how the deaf community can counteract those perceptions.

“It’s our job,” says Girard, “to prove that deaf people are not silent.” In other words, not being able to hear doesn’t mean they can’t make some noise in the culture.

Instead, she says, deaf people often err on the side of overcompensation, wanting to emphasize that they “are masters of communication.”

Girard’s most recent project, 101 Things That Unite and Divide, is based on the idea that visual storytelling is an essential part of deaf culture and seeks to explain deaf culture to the hearing community using design, animation and film.

[Read a transcript of the interview after the jump]

In a series of short stories — told in American Sign Language (ASL) and written English by deaf people — Girard tries to highlight experiences that she feels are missing from the public understanding of deaf culture.

“My challenge as a designer is how to design for two completely different audiences and have them understand at the same time,” explains Girard. “Not only two different audiences, but two different languages.”

One man describes being able to conduct a discussion about fish while he’s underwater, scuba diving with his brother. A woman recounts the first time she understood what’s known as the “moth effect,” when deaf people gather toward the light source in a dark room. Girard boasts her ability to talk (using ASL) with her mouth full.

101 Things that Unite and Divide: The Deaf Moth Theory from Robyn Girard on Vimeo.

101 Things that Unite and Divide: The Hotel Joke from Robyn Girard on Vimeo.

Ultimately, Girard hopes that 101 Things That Unite and Divide will have a ripple effect, bringing positive stories of what it’s like to be deaf to popular culture.


Hello, my name is Robyn Girard. I’m a filmmaker, designer and animator based out of Brooklyn, NY. I’m hear at SXSW this weekend because I was giving a presentation on motion painting, visual storytelling and deaf film. [I was] talking a lot about my project this weekend, which is “101 Things That Unite and Divide”, a collection of several short stories that in some way expresses the deaf experience through visual story telling.

What is the goal of this project?

Well, I’m here at SXSW to bring the project to a greater audience. I would like a better cultural understanding between both audiences because we’re dealing with different audiences: those people who have never thought about visual storytelling or deaf culture before – those people who are typically auditory signal hearers – they hear – and people like myself, who communicate visually, through a visual language using three dimensions, spatial motion, and tone, and color, and texture. And hopefully to bring that vivid textual world to a greater audience and allow them to immerse themselves in the culture and come away with a greater understanding of what it means to be deaf and what it means to communicate visually.

You use design to highlight differences between English and ASL. How does this work?

Absolutely. Three-Dimensional language, like the one I’m using right now, American Sign Language, it’s a completely different system and syntax and grammar from that of written or spoken English. So that’s definitely one of my challenges in the film. What can I do that really demonstrates the differences between the two languages. So what I did in a variety of the collections is have written English appear to either the right or left of the actor and that language is interacting with the sign language. So, for example, the way I’m signing right now, you would see English words popping up in the background either behind me or to the left or right of me and what I will do is sometimes highlight those words. That way the English word will pop up and highlight at the time that the ASL word was being signed. For me, everything was done through the computer – everything was After Effects. And we had this signer there and we would have to think about how we would translate those signs into the English and which order the signs were actually happening on the screen and combine the two. So it actually becomes a cultural and educational experience. You learn about how the two languages interact with each other and are separate. And that’s the beauty of the visual storytelling that’s combined in these languages.

Do you consider yourself an advocate for the deaf?

That’s actually a great question. Every deaf person is an advocate. It’s our role in life really. We go through society often labeled as disabled members of society. People who are not able to function on the same playing field or level as others, and that’s not true. We function just as well as a hearing counterpart. So for us to be able to get this recognition, for us to be able to really function on a level playing field, we need to show others and educate others that we can. So yes, literally we’re advocates for ourselves everyday, teaching somebody a new sign or teaching somebody that there is a difference between American Sign Language and English. All of this is advocacy and we do it on a daily basis in order to function equivalently. So for me, it’s the fun part. It’s being able to work with a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds and cultures and to be able to bring my project to them and open a dialogue and open some collaboration, and that’s something that for me is very much how I advocate for my community.