Father of Sign Gene
Another Sound of Silence
Words by Eija Niskanen
Photos by Daniel Goertz
EMILIO INSOLERA BELONGS to that rare Edemographic which sees himself referred to as a ‘TCK’-that is, a ‘transcultural kid’, to you and I. Osaka is where he has laid his hat and now calls home, and it is from here that he is currently working on his latest independent action film: Sign Gene. Though Insolera’s latest project may feature martial arts, yakuza fistfights and even the odd helicopter chase, central to its core will be the emphasis on deaf issues and Sign language. Indeed, the movie’s biggest departure is the language in which it is directed: Sign language – or, more accurately, in one of several existing Sign languages.
Sign Gene’s director met up with Tokyo Journal in Shibuya whilst en route to the NHK studios. The director turns out to be a lively character, one, perhaps unsurprisingly, with a sense for physical and situational humor. Scratching the veneer, TJ discovers where the man himself comes from, and what informs the film’s modus operandum.
Emilio Insolera was born in 1979 in Argentina, to an Italian father and Argentinian mother. He went on to study filmmaking at Washington Gallaudet University, itself famous for its deaf studies program, a place which was to galvanize the young Insolera’s enthusiasm for making short films. Now relocated to Osaka, he is currently shooting his first feature film, and in such wonderfully disparate locations as Nara, Kyoto, Himeji, New York, and Maryland.
Sign Gene wastes little time in getting straight to the action, beginning as it does with two deaf Americans being murdered in Osaka. A pair of special agents are soon dispatched to Japan to investigate the case – one of them being deaf himself (played by Insolera), the other a ‘CODA’, or son of deaf parents (played by Danny Gong). Before long their investigation has lead them straight to the heart of a yakuza battleground, with the two of them having to skillfully navigate their way through the fractious scenario.
“Sign Gene is an entertaining action film whose protagonists happen to be deaf.”
As the story unravels, many of the film’s characters even turn out to be blessed with arcane powers – like those, when signing the word ‘close’, of being able to make doors close at will; or where, when signing the word ‘weapon’, hands actually metamorphose into bona fide weapons, replete with spewing fire and all sorts. In one sense, there is even a parallel with kanji at play here – Japanese characters are, of course, very much predicated upon actual images. Needless to say, these strange powers point towards the special ‘sign gene’ of the film’s title – a genetic mutation which the movie characters have inherited. And, in so doing, the movie meshes the imaginary and the real worlds , adroitly moving between action and science fiction genres.
When it comes to the actors and crew on Sign Gene, they include both deaf and non-deaf alike, both professionals and amateurs, too, whether they be Japanese, Americans, Europeans or Asians. As for the direction, then multiple interpretation is ever on the go: since there is no single Sign language – but rather different ones for different countries – then Insolera is conversant in Argentinean, Italian and American Sign languages and his Japanese signing has come along in leaps and bounds lately, too. What’s more, his directions are translated into Japanese Sign language and, for the non-deaf actors, into spoken Japanese or English. The casting came by way of word of mouth: Emilio was especially looking for native signers fluent in Sign language.
“There is no single sign language, but different ones in different countries.”
Insolera is understandably emphatic about the fact that there are very few films about deaf people actually made by the deaf themselves. Certainly, he resents the pitiful, stereotypical ‘victim role’ most commonly foisted upon the deaf in mainstream movies . These movies tend towards the perspective of the hearing majority when it comes to the subject of deafness. But with Sign Gene the world is now firmly seen through the eyes of the deaf , affording a view of how their world really is. And for this director it is assuredly no a world of victims, but of people empowered by their own personal situations. He also tells of how, in mainstream film, deaf characters are largely portrayed by non-deaf actors, with it all being far too obvious to the deaf viewer that the signing is contrived and unnatural. Yet, Sign Gene will not be focusing on the problems of the deaf. Rather, it is an entertaining action film where the protagonists simply happen to be deaf or where many happen to come from deaf families. More than that, all the different Sign languages used in the film create a colorful web of communication and are employed to great humorous effect. Simply put, the film is aimed at a general audience, an undertaking realized in a style which makes it entertaining for both a deaf and a hearing audience alike. Subtitles will be added according to the screening country.
Other goals Insolera has in mind are those of developing cultural co-operation between different nationalities. He also wants to encourage any deaf Japanese to make low-budget – or even no-budget – indie films , to impart them with the skills to put together a film project within a limited budget, and he pledges to support them even if he leaves Japan Without question, Sign Gene represents something completely novel, a new visual way of communication in film. tj