7 November 2013

Werner Herzog’s 1972’s Land of Silence and Darkness is testament to a changing and important moment in time for the lives of many people with disabilities. Made in the early years of the deinstitutionalisation movement, the film follows the work of a deafblind German woman, Fini Straubinger, as she fiercely advocates and crusades for the rights of deafblind people.

Fini talks about overcoming adversity, struggles, trials, tribulations, burdens, barriers, silence and darkness. Her portrait of the world of deafblindness is bleak, or perhaps it’s Herzog’s own perceptions of deafblindness that are echoed in the film. Deafblindness is unique because the combination of hearing and sight impairments means that the way the world is usually constructed and infiltrated by hearing and sighted people is not possible in the same way for deafblind people.

The adversity we see in the film is not the experience of being deafblind, but the experience of living in a world built entirely on ableist principles. The world has changed and Fini would have a different life today. Herzog’s film, reminds us of a time when deafblind people, particularly children received interventionist methods, so that they might integrate in a largely unwelcoming world. The disability and social care sector was very different forty years ago. There was an urgency to teach deafblind people to adapt to mainstream society without taking into consideration their individual needs, their hopes and aspirations. 

The deafblind artists we work with at Sense’s Arts and Wellbeing programmes would paint a different picture of what it means to be deafblind today. Nowadays we work with deafblind people to make sure that they receive the support they need, in the way they want to receive it. We talk about possibilities instead of barriers and we strive to find the best way to make art and culture accessible. Not everything is accessible to everyone, but everything can be adapted.

Art in all its many forms is a way to show that difference is what we all have in common. It might seem like film would be a strange medium for deafblind people to engage with because it is largely a visual and auditory form, but there are so many ways that film can become a tactile and multi-sensory experience. There are always new ways for sighted and hearing people to engage with art in a different way too.

So next time you watch a film, Herzog included, try opting for the audio description, or the subtitles, or the sign language interpreted version. Try turning the sound off and the house lights on. Don’t do it to find out how difficult it is to be deafblind though, do it to find out what you are missing out on. There is always more than one way to experience the same thing.

Sense’s Arts and Wellbeing programmes develop opportunities for deafblind people to contribute to the arts and cultural life of their communities. For more information please visit the Sense website.

Land of Silence and Darkness screens at FACT this Wednesday 13 November, book your tickets online, in person at the box office or by calling 0871 902 5737.