According to American Sign Language (ASL) lore, in a galaxy far, far away there exists a planet, Eyeth, inhabited mainly by those who use sign language to communicate. Whereas the majority of those who live on Earth speak and hear - using their ears - on Eyeth people communicate visually - with their hands and eyes.
So it’s fitting that Boston-based filmmaker Arthur Luhn named his production company Eyeth Films, which he founded in 2000 with the purpose of making films by, for, and about the ASL-speaking public. While according to Luhn many big-screen films like Children of a Lesser God “portray the ASL Culture in a rather dreary light” (and even those films are few and far between), Eyeth Films strives to give visibility to the ASL community and capture the richness of its culture and language.
“There’s a lack of respect for American Sign Langugage as a legitimate language,” says Luhn, who was born without any hearing and does not consider himself “disabled.” As opposed to depicting “deafness” as something that must be overcome, Luhn wants his films to convey the humanity of ASL speakers - that they are just like everyone else, only they communicate using visual means, a unique characteristic rather than a deficit.
In Eyeth’s first feature-length film, The Golden Legacy (2003), ASL-speaking characters embark on a modern-day adventure in search for pirate’s gold. Patrick Brannelly stars as George, who is always looking for a get-rich-quick scheme to help him escape his drab job and endless debt. One day he meets Aeneas (Al Marotta), an elderly man who is on a quest for hidden treasure that is rumored to exist in his family. The two pair up, and the ensuing hunt takes them to several Boston landmarks, including the narrow streets of Beacon Hill, and finally to Martha’s Vineyard, where a sizeable ASL community thrived for almost 300 years.
As writer, producer, and director of THE GOLDEN LEGACY, Luhn set out to make a light, entertaining film that “happened to have people from the ASL community in it,” showing them in everyday situations: at work, arguing with their spouses, behaving as incorrigible teenagers. The central theme is not deafness, though the film is infused with ASL history, culture, and humor. (The villain, for instance, is named Alex Bell, a.k.a. Alexander Graham Bell, who, despite his strong ties to the ASL community, opposed the intermarriage of deaf people and believed that the deaf should adjust to the hearing population by learning to lip-read.) Also important, as Luhn points out, is that “the characters’ signing is fully in the picture, it’s not cut or cropped as it has been on the big screen.”
Born in Aspen, Colorado, Luhn migrated to Vermont, where he spent most of his childhood and adolescence, and then attended Boston University, where he studied religion and philosophy. “Filmmaking has always been in my blood,” he said, and came naturally to him - he has never had any formal training. But Luhn considers himself a writer first. In 2002, he published a novel, In the Name of Silence, which, in his words, is about “an eccentric deaf man who lives at home with his mother and who is one day suddenly seized with a quixotic desire to save his culture - the deaf culture - from backsliding into oblivion.”
Film, however, allows one to create a record of ASL culture’s strong visual elements in a way that writing cannot. Arguably, it’s a natural medium for expressing ASL. “Film, regardless of how great the sound is, is still a visual craft. If the sound system went out at a theater where a film was playing, the length to which the audience would remain to watch is a testimony to your skills as a filmmaker,” says Luhn. And isn’t this how film began?
This point is not lost on Luhn, whose short film, Destination: Eyeth, is in the tradition of silent film, with title cards for dialogue and choppy, sped-up action in sepia tone. In the film, a mad scientist makes several failed attempts - with a seasaw contraption, a flying machine, and a rocket - to propel himself to Planet Eyeth.
Eyeth Films may be the only production company dedicated to the creation of films in American Sign Language, and it is committed to making its films easily obtainable. A few deaf film festivals around the world - such as Cinema of the Deaf, organized by the Chicago Institute of the Moving Image - provide annual showcases for ASL films, but most of these films are not in general distribution. While Luhn has found it almost impossible to locate films by other deaf filmmakers, THE GOLDEN LEGACY can be purchased through Eyeth’s website, (www.eyethefilms.com).
As a business model, Eyeth “has the advantage of beginning with a market that is untapped, the ASL market,” says Noah Lydiard, Luhn’s cousin, friend, and collaborator. In terms of building the company, “[Luhn’s] only real disability is lack of resouces.” But in the meantime, with twenty-eight treatments under his belt, Luhn is not waiting for an angel to make it happen for him.
Luhn made The Golden Legacy with virtually no budget and relied on the dedication of a volunteer cast and crew. A skilled carpenter, he built many of the sets himself and also did carpentry to support himself while making the film. Luhn credits Lydiard for “single handedly doing the post-production while juggling a demanding, full-time job,” as well as his executive director, Jon Carlson, who contributed much more than funds to the project.
Though it took three years to make, the project exceeded Luhn’s expectations many times over. Originally, he envisioned a film without sound, one that he would “take it off the shelf every once in a while and screen.” The finished product has sound, a soundtrack, is fully subtitled in English for non-ASL speakers, and, with steady sales and warm reception both inside and outside the ASL community, has begun to create credibility for the nascent company and its founder.
The guerilla effort was such as success that Luhn was inspired to create a nonprofit organization, the National Institute for Education through Visual Arts (NIEVA), dedicated to showcasing American Sign Language through visual media and to bridging the ASL and hearing worlds. One of NIEVA’s first efforts will be to produce Thorns of Silence, a documentary about violence against women in the ASL community; Regan Thibodeau, an ASL speaker and a survivor of violence, is directing the film.
Lydiard aptly describes his cousin as “unstoppable.” Luhn hopes to begin work on his next ASL film, Institution, next year. Currently, in addition to serving as the executive director of NIEVA, he is collaborating with Lydiard on LOOKING UP, a mainstream film about a 9/11 survivor who returns to his hometown.
“For a while I suffered under the misconception that most people discriminated against the ASL community,” says Luhn. “But the more I interact with the world at large, the more I understand that the world at large just simply hasn’t heard of us!” Give him a few more years, and this may cease to be the case.