How a deaf director is breaking the sound barrier

At age 20, Sylvain Gélinas saw no reason why being deaf should get in the way of his dream of becoming a feature film director. Some 20 years later he does admit the dream nearly died more than once. And even though not everyone was open to hearing about his cinematic aspirations, he was never ready to say ‘cut’ just yet.

As far as Sylvain Gélinas is concerned, deaf creators can work very well together with hearing actors or technicians on any set. During an interview he explained how he can easily give very precise directions to cast and crew through a Quebec Sign Language (LSQ) interpreter. “I can also hire cinematographers I can sit down with to discuss my project to make sure they understand my vision before they convey it to their teams,” he said.

For the time being, Gélinas is working on getting all the elements in place for a shoot. Among other things, he’s having a hard time because of the shortage of qualified deaf people in film production. “In France and the US, it’s easy to find deaf people working in a variety of film professions,” he said. “If we could somehow transpose skills like those here, it would be a big boost in developing a creative environment for the Quebec deaf community.”

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Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle

Building bridges

With his strong belief in establishing network connections between communities, Gélinas said he was delighted to see Télé-Québec using LSQ interpreters signing a full range of educational content during the first months of the pandemic. “With the television network directly linked to the department of education, the Quebec government has become increasingly involved in our community since then,” he said. “We’re getting more and more contracts from them. It’s like I’ve finally built a bridge between supply and demand.”

Gélinas had to cope with a lot of misunderstanding and sheer incomprehension over the years, decades even. “It’s not that I felt excluded when I was a kid. But when I was around hearing people talking and laughing with each other, and I’d ask them what was so funny, they’d say, ‘never mind,’ or ‘we’ll tell you later,’ and then they’d forget, and never get around to letting me in on the joke. It might seem like nothing, but it can make you feel like you really don’t matter.”

Fortunately, he got to attend classes for hearing-impaired students in elementary and high school, and then had access to interpreters in CÉGEP. “The interpreter was a big help in class. I could actually respond when people were talking to me,” Gélinas said. “Since I can’t really read lips, I couldn’t have done it without their help."

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Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle

His first steps as a filmmaker

In 1999, Sylvain Gélinas jumped into the film business with both feet. “I made about 15 short fiction films, including several comedies and horror flicks with other members of the deaf community,” he said. The vast majority of the films were shot with actors fluent in LSQ. “Two of the shorts included a hearing person in the crew whose parents were deaf. She was responsible for checking the audio quality,” said Gélinas.

He founded as well in the same year to produce his own artistic projects. Then in 2007, the hit show Le Banquier really turned his career around. “I won a bundle on the show, and I asked myself what was I going to do with all that money? I had the good sense to go to the Service d’aide aux jeunes entreprises (SAJE: start-up support services) for advice,” Gélinas said. “When I told them that my business was focused on my personal projects, they quickly made me see what a challenge monetizing that would be.”

He also told the people at SAJE that he sometimes got work shooting videos of government announcements and translating them into LSQ. “They helped me to understand that this was the kind of service you could build a business on. And that really widened my horizons,” Gélinas said. 2.0 is now very versatile in its offering, which includes awareness-raising workshops in schools and filming both sporting and theatrical events for various associations of the deaf looking for a quality finished product.

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Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle has four hearing-impaired employees on the payroll. They use LSQ to communicate with each other and have a number of ways for communicating with hearing people at their disposal. Like when a Now & Next journalist wanted to interview Sylvain Gélinas. The request started off as an email and was followed up with a phone call through the Canada Video Relay Service. The journalist spoke in person and an interpreter relayed what they said in LSQ on video. “We can also use platforms like Zoom with an interpreter on site with us or taking part virtually,” said Gélinas. They can also take advantage of a work integration contract sponsored by Emploi Québec that’s been reimbursing 100% of interpretation costs since 2018.

Looking forward

All of which is proof positive that when anyone wants to communicate with or work with members of the deaf community, there’s no longer any sound barrier to get in the way. “I have no doubt that one day I will shoot a film with hearing actors,” said Gélinas. “All I need is a hearing person by my side. I focus on directing, the visual aspects, and the actor’s facial expressions, with the hearing person letting me know if the voice and tone are in sync with the emotional impact I want.”

If Sylvain Gélinas ever had any doubts that his dream of becoming a filmmaker would come true, his experience in the past few months has driven the doubts out for good. “I’m like the needle of a compass, going this way and that. I’m as ambivalent as they come. But I recently decided to go ahead and make a film again,” Gélinas said. “I’m actually working on a project with a hearing person who’s very enthusiastic. So, yes, my dream of becoming a filmmaker is alive and well. I might even become an actor, too!”

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Photo credit: Sandra Larochelle

While he remains discreet when it comes to most of his projects in development, there is one project he has a hard time keeping under his hat. “We’re hoping to adapt a story by a Quebec author about a deaf person’s coming of age, but we’re just at the concept stage. There’s still a long way to go before it sees the light of day.”

Samuel Larochelle
Originally from Abitibi-Témiscamingue and now based in Montreal, Samuel Larochelle has been a freelance journalist since 2012 for some 20 media outlets, including La Presse, HuffPost Quebec, Les Débrouillards, Fugues, L'actualité, Nightlife, Échos Montréal and many others. Also a writer, he has published two novels (À cause des garçons, Parce que tout me ramène à toi), the first two volumes of a series for teenagers and young adults (Lilie l'apprentie parfaite, Lilie l'apprentie amoureuse), as well as literary news in three collectives (Treize à table, Comme chiens et chats, Sous la ceinture - Unis pour vaincre la culture du viol).
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