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'Deaf Jam' take a new look at poetry slams

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 10, 2011 - With ties to rap and hip-hop, U.S National Poetry Slams have gained popularity among teenagers, however not often including the deaf. In "Deaf Jam," a group of students from The Lexington School for the Deaf show their obsession, frustration and gumption as they explore American Sign Language poetry, the poetry of the "spoken word," where they soon find themselves in the same arena as their hearing peers.

"Deaf Jam" follows Aneta Brodski, an Israeli-born New Yorker whose dynamic energy lights up the screen. Brodski is deaf and  finds her outlet through slam poetry. "If you are deaf, you can read lips; but most people talking are not really using their face. I think that is part of what is captivating about the main character because she is so incredibly expressive that you fall in love with her," said filmmaker Judy Lieff.

As Brodski's involvement in slam grows, she meets Tahani Salah - a hearing Palestinian slam poet. The two team up to create a powerful hearing/deaf duo. The film gives us a unique perspective into this vibrant partnership. Salah and Brodski's friendship surpass politics, handicaps and other obstacles that might stand in its way.

"So far the reaction to the film has been, where can I learn to sign," said Lieff. "I used to think of this film as reaching out to youth but there are a lot of older people who loved it; it was extremely pleasant surprise. I am really happy to know that the film can resonate with people of any age."

Lieff is a dancer who got into experimental film making. "Someone invited me into a school for deaf children in Burbank and I was riveted by the language. As a dancer, my first language is movement and a grammatical movement that is grammar based is another way to express yourself through motion, I loved it."

She began her relationship with the deaf community through making an experimental cine-poem, "Duties of My Heart." The film became the start for her teaching video production workshops she designed for deaf teens. In 2000, after witnessing slam poems being preformed, Lieff conceptualized "Deaf Jam." Her research showed that few, if any deaf poets participated in slams and propelled her to create this film that expands the social image of the deaf community.

"['Deaf Jam'] is not what you would expect. The level of competition and energy is much higher than you would think and you will bond more with the subjects than you would ever imagine and find yourself rooting for them," said Alex Detrick, assistant director of community education and events at the Missouri History Museum. Admission is free for the 7 p.m. On Oct. 13, followed by a performance by local slam poets at 8 p.m. At the performance "we will have interpretation for the hearing members of the audience," said Detrick.

For more information about the film, check out the website. The documentary is part of the Community Cinema Series, which is a partnership among Nine Network, Independent Television Service (ITVS) and Missouri History Museum.

Rosa Dudman Mayer is a freelance writer. 

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