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June 3, 2005

Deaf children make Zimbabwean television history

From: McLaren - June 3, 2005

Deaf children make Zimbabwean television history

By Robert McLaren

Zimbabwean television history will be made at 11am on Sunday 5th June when the first episode of 'Handspeak', the first television series for and by the deaf in Sign Language, will be broadcast. 'Handspeak' will have sub-titles so hearing viewers will be able to follow what is being said.

Each episode will feature a short lesson on Sign Language, news about and for the deaf, a drama on the Topic of the Week, followed by a discussion with guests on the programme and lastly the 'Window of Hope' - a profile of deaf persons who have, despite the odds, made something of their lives. The series features topics such as Love and Marriage, Careers, HIV/AIDS, Education, Communication, Resources, Entertainment and Relaxation. The making of 'Handspeak' has in itself been a unique experience and a special documentary will be put together on the process.

I was part of the CHIPAWO Media team that produced 'Handspeak', most of the time having to play the part of director. Though I am an experienced theatre director, with publications to my name, I have learnt all I know about film and television from Stephen Chigorimbo, with whom I worked closely in the late nineties, as he established CHIPAWO television with productions like 'Welcome to CHIPAWO', the CHIPAWO Christmas shows, 'Welcome to the World' and the CHIPAWO Showcase.

The reason that I had to play a major part in directing, with Chipo Basopo as my 1st AD, is that CHIPAWO Media has never had enough funding to employ an experienced director. So it is a gap we all to fill whenever we have a production. Anyway Chigorimbo was a good teacher and I learnt a lot from him.

For me the transition from theatre to film was in itself fascinating. I experienced this as an actor when I played a role in Manu film, 'Mhangwana' - and I have always wanted to write about that experience. Now making television with the deaf, mostly with deaf children, has been another extraordinary experience. Just to give a few examples - in deaf television a close-up has to be a medium shot because if the camera cuts out the hands, the actor has lost his or her voice. As the title of the series implies, the voice of the deaf is in their hands. Also an actor who is speaking, has to be filmed from the front and cutaways are impossible. If the camera goes anywhere else, the hands are lost and no-one will 'hear' what the actor is saying.

In the production of 'Handspeak' the bulk of the work went towards the drama segments which feature in each episode. These were performed by children from Emerald Hill School for the Deaf, where CHIPAWO has an arts education centre. Many of the children involved had already had a lot of experience on the stage, having participated in the production of a play on growing up deaf, called 'Cry Thinking', which they performed at the 7th World Festival of Children's Theatre in Lingen Germany in 2002.

Scenarios had been prepared by the children under the direction of Audrey Meki, now a graduate of the school and a teacher in CHIPAWO's 'Challenge' centres. By the time we went to the school to re-work the scenarios for television, the children were already demoralised by the delays and no longer believed that the programme was going to happen. Nyasha Nyamwanza, Programme Officer in the Challenge Programme, and co-ordinator of the 'Handspeak' project - later to become the Anchor in the series - is deaf but can speak. She was the link between Chipo and myself and the children - though as Catherine Chirongoma, CHIPAWO graduate and Media technician noted when interviewing me for the documentary, I seem to be the only one who is not to be able to speak Sign Language. From lots of collaboration with the deaf, most CHIPAWO staff and many children can speak it.

The rehearsals in themselves were an experience, both touching and impressive. Paradoxically, as deaf people cannot hear, they don't mind making noise. So while we were trying to break down the dramas into short segments - a process which they at first could not understand but soon got the hang of - the other children (and there were always about 40 or 50 children at the rehearsals) were holding animated conversations with lots of active movement and going up and down. Nyasha had always had problems lip-reading my English, owing to the unsatisfactory structure of my lips. But at last I found a way of communicating with her - by speaking Shona. Somehow this seemed to make a great improvement to my mouth and most of the time she can understand what I am saying if I say it in Shona.

If the drama rehearsals were hard work but fun, the actual filming in the CHIPAWO Media Studio in Northwood, Mount Pleasant, was a revelation. Those children demonstrated in the most touching and impressive way that disability does not mean inability. Here they were, creating a television series in their own language, Sign Language, and they were brilliant - as the footage clearly reveals.

You are now in the studio - what is filming the deaf like? First of all, calling the shots, usually done by the 1st AD, and climaxing in 'ACTION!', is out. Your actors cannot hear you. So hand signals have to be used instead. What about the script? We do not have a way of writing a script in Sign Language and so scripts are written in English. But Sign Language is not English. In a way each actor has to translate the English as they go along. So, before each shoot, time has to be spent on making sure that the Sign Language adequately expresses the content of the English script.

In terms of blocking, you cannot have two actors having dialogue without looking at each other - this became very important when the two newsreaders gave the news. That relentless ZBC newsreading style of looking nowhere but at the camera was impossible - for if they did that how would they know what the other was saying and when he or she was finished?

And as for sound - 'Sound!' you say. 'What sound?' - though the deaf do not in the main speak, they make noises, often the noises do approximate to the words and in some cases are quite clearly comprehensible. Even when the sounds are incomprehensible, they are expressive. They are part of the human being's communication - of emotions in particular. So just because they are deaf and dumb does not mean you can just switch of the sound.

These are just some of the unique experiences we had working with the children of Emerald Hill, not this time on stage, in drama or traditional and modern dance, where they already excel, but in television. The more you work with them, the more you see their beauty, come to love them - and finally admire them and curse yourself for your inability to speak their language - Sign Language.

The television series is the work of CHIPAWO Media with assistance with funding from MS Zimbabwe, the Danish development organisation. Though the first series was filmed by an all-hearing crew, it is planned that in future a deaf crew will be trained.

Though there are television programmes for the deaf in other countries, there are not many in Africa. In Zimbabwe 10% of the content of the national television broadcaster, ZTV, is expected to be for the hearing impaired. As there was virtually nothing before, except for certain news programmes in Sign Language, 'Handspeak' will go a long way towards filling the gap.

As published in the Daily Mirror, Zimbabwe, in The Future Today column as hosted by CHIPAWO. Organisations or individuals wishing to contribute information and/or ideas to 'The Future Today', phone Bridget on 263-4-850207 or e-mail to or