With a silent tribute that spoke volumes, the Greenpoint Film Festival (GFF) closed on Sunday, September 23rd, with a tip of its hat to Best Documentary winner “Deaf Jam.”
The film follows Aneta Brodski, a deaf teen, who when introduced to American Sign Language (ASL) poetry, enters the spoken word slam scene. In an interesting twist, Brodski, an Israeli immigrant, meets Tahani, a hearing Palestinian slam poet and the two collaborate on a performance duet, creating a new form of slam poetry that speaks to both the hearing and the deaf.
“It’s so inspiring,” said GFF founder Rosa Valado. “There’s no point in this film where you can look at this girl and know she has a handicap, because she herself doesn’t see herself as having one. You go into her world thinking it’s different [from ours] and come out thinking that it’s a perfectly normal world that we haven’t really considered.”
To illustrate her point, Valado brought ASL Slam host Douglas Ridloff to the Festival’s 186 Huron Street site to give Greenpointers a sample of the art form. Ridloff, who lives in Williamsburg with wife Lauren and son Levi, both of whom are also deaf (“We’re so proud” he says of his 7 month old), began hosting Slam events at the Bowery Poetry Club in 2010. Since taking over the monthly poetry and storytelling series, which began in 2005, Ridloff’s audience has grown from an average of 30 people to over 120.
The reasons for his success are apparent. Tall and thin, with an open, expressive face, Ridloff oozes charisma. He also brings an unmatched level of enthusiasm to his art, which he honed, first as a traveling one-man show, and later teaming with ASL Slam co-founder Jason Norman on a two-man show. He went on to win ASL Live!, a national competition of ASL storytelling and poetry, and followed that up with a second place finish in ASL Idol.
“Deaf people have a voice,” Ridloff signed from the stage Sunday night. “It’s silent, but we can be quite vocal.” After the show, Ridloff explained through interpreter Anthony Adamo, “ASL Slam provides deaf people an audience that can participate, but also gives them a chance to be part of one, or to get up on stage and express their art through different types of poetry.”
With its unlimited variations, defining ASL Slam to the uninitiated is nearly impossible. It’s storytelling, with the body as text. Similar hand-shapes act as alliteration, and matching hand-shapes used repetitively work as rhyme. Rhyming schemes are based on elements such as facial expression, movement, locations of the signs and hand shapes. On Sunday night, it only took a few performances before the nuances making each artist unique became clear. Faster or slower hand speeds expressed emotion or excitement, a raised eyebrow, sarcasm or surprise.
At the GFF ceremony, Ridloff kept the audience, including those unfamiliar with signing, enrapt as both performer and host. Rarely relying on Adamo, he displayed the subtleties of his art and led audience participation, with half the room excitedly signing A-S-L and the other half “Slam” between performances.
“It really is about mind-bending, perception changing, inspiring episodes,” said Valado, who could not have been more pleased with the winning film and the ASL Slam performance Sunday night. “I think that’s what the Film Festival is really all about.”