‘Sign the Show,’ at NJ Film Festival, explores entertainment access for the deaf and hard of hearing

sign the show

In a scene from the documentary “Sign the Show: Deaf Culture, Access & Entertainment,” a sign language interpreter performs with the group Tony! Toni! Toné!

“It’s like having an incredible dancer that’s joining you, interpreting the song in that way. But I also love it because we reach more people,” says singer-songwriter and Spearhead bandleader Michael Franti, about having sign language interpreters onstage at concerts, in the documentary “Sign the Show: Deaf Culture, Access & Entertainment.”

The Cat Brewer-directed, approximately 90-minute film — which will be shown at the New Jersey Film Festival, in New Brunswick and online, on Oct. 2 — is a well-made overview of the ever-increasing presence of sign language interpreters at cultural events since Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. Brewer doesn’t just look at the use of interpreters at concerts, but at theater and comedy shows, too, as well as the phenomenon of particularly animated interpreters going viral after being filmed at shows.

Prominent performers — including Waka Flocka Flame (who co-executive produced the film), Kelly Clarkson, Chance the Rapper, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Pat Monahan of Train, André 3000 of Outkast, D’Wayne Wiggins of Tony! Toni! Toné!, D.L. Hughley and J.B. Smoove — are interviewed, as are interpreters, who discuss the difficulties and rewards of their work. For someone who has never really given much thought to this issue (and I have to confess that includes me), the film makes a lot of interesting points and asks a lot of intriguing questions, the most important of which is probably: Why, more than 30 years after ADA, is the use of sign language interpreters still such a haphazard thing for most artists, and most venues?

As Franti says in the quote above (with other artists in the film echoing it in different ways), interpreters are a way to reach more people. And millions of people throughout the world are deaf or hard of hearing. Don’t artists want to reach as many people as possible?

I was a little disappointed Brewer didn’t interview members of Sweet Honey in the Rock, who not only include sign language interpreting at all their shows, but regard their interpreter as a full band member (they are the only group I am aware of that does that). But all of the artists who are interviewed clearly see the value of interpreting, and have embraced it to varying degrees.

The film does not just engage viewers with its discussions, but entertains with clips of interpreters in action that are mesmerizing in their own right.

Interpreting “provides an experience to another group of patrons, but it also provides an experience to other (non-deaf) people in the audience,” says interpreter Holly Maniatty, in a clip from a South by Southwest panel discussion that is included in the film. “Many, many times, I’ve been interpreting … you get done, and you’re moving on to the next show, and people come up to you and they’re like, ‘Oh, I really experienced that music in a different way because you were there.’ … I had one artist come up to me afterwards as I was literally running to the next stage, and they said, ‘Thank you so much, that’s how my music would look.’ And for me, that was like, mission accomplished.”

“Sign the Show: Deaf Culture, Access & Entertainment” will be screened as part of the Fall 2022 New Jersey Film Festival at Voorhees Hall at Rutgers University in New Brunswick at 7 p.m. Oct. 2, and also will be available online all day Oct. 2. Visit njfilmfest.com.

For more on the film, visit signtheshow.com.

Here is the film’s trailer:


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