Signs on screen: deafness and sign language in contemporary film

The screen is a privileged site for representing sign languages, and for translating them to hearing audiences via subtitles. The auditory nature of cinema – with its capacity for cutting, muffling and distorting sound – also allows hearing audiences to perceive Deaf perspectives in immersive and even transformative ways. Screen texts can debunk myths, increase meaningful self-representation for Deaf viewers and provide a point of entry for hearing viewers to unlearn their assumptions and cultivate a deeper understanding of Deaf language and culture. However, until the twenty-first century, screen texts depicting Deaf characters and sign language were not only rare, but were rarely written, directed or even acted by Deaf people. More often than not, twentieth century screen depictions of deafness and sign language perpetuated tropes of social isolation, medical pathology and especially linguistic poverty.

By contrast, since the 2010s, a radically new corpus has been appearing on transnational screens. From the US A Quiet Place (2018) to the Australian Unsound (2020), from the Ukrainian The Tribe (2014) to the Japanese A Silent Voice (2016), we are witnessing the growth of a vibrant Deaf-led screen culture. These films conceive of sign language as complex, Deaf culture as complete and Deaf experience as empowering. They also pose profound questions about nation, national language and domestic, internal multilingualism. This seminar delves into one of the main case studies of the Signs on Screen project: the rise of French Sign Language cinema in contemporary France. It analyses the 2014 films La Famille Bélier (Eric Lartigau, remade in 2021 as the American CODA) and Marie Heurtin (Jean-Pierre Améris). Each of these films is set in the rural French ‘heartland’, yet they both construct a multilingual world within the contours of the French nation state. The seminar will explore how these sign language films radically interrogate received norms of culture and identity, how Deaf groups use language and construct community, and what ‘national language’ means for a nation that was always already multilingual.

Presented by Dr Gemma King

Gemma King is a Senior Lecturer in French at the Australian National University and the 2021 RSHA Internal Fellow at the Humanities Research Centre. Her research focuses on contemporary cinemas and museums, specialising in the representation of multilingualism, transnational connections, colonial histories, violence and social power. Her writing has been published in French Cultural Studies, Contemporary French Civilization, L’Esprit Créateur, The Australian Journal of French Studies, Inside Higher Ed, The Conversation, Francosphères and numerous edited volumes. She is the author of the monographs Decentring France: Multilingualism and Power in Contemporary French Cinema (Manchester University Press, 2017) and Jacques Audiard (2021), a volume in Manchester UP’s French Film Directors series.

Image gallery

Date & time

Tue 09 Nov 2021, 4.30pm




Dr Gemma King

Event series


HAL Administration


Updated:  13 October 2021/Responsible Officer:  Head, Centre/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications