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Carleton to Host Area Premiere of Award-Winning Documentary Film, “Signing On”

February 9, 2012 at 8:28 pm
By Jacob Cohn '13

Carleton College will host a public screening of the award-winning documentary film “Signing On: Stories of Deaf Breast Cancer Survivors, Their Families and the Deaf Community” on Sunday, February 12 at 2 p.m. in the Weitz Center for Creativity Cinema.  The film will be introduced by director Barbara Allen, Carleton College professor of political science and director of women’s and gender studies, and followed by a question and answer session with Allen along with cast and crew from the film. Refreshments will also be served. This event is free and open to the public.

The film’s title, “Signing On,” is a play on words for people whose language is American Sign Language. The documentary originally premiered on Minnesota Public Television and won the audience award for “Best Documentary” at the 2011 Twin Cities Film Festival.  

“Signing On” profiles a group of deaf breast cancer survivors (known as the “Pink Deafies”) who struggle to communicate in the hearing-dominated health care system, where effective communication between patients and providers can make the difference between life and death. 

“The story needs to be told because many hearing people just don’t ‘get it,’” said Nancy Myers, co-producer of “Signing On.” “While we can simulate blindness—covering our eyes and trying to navigate through our day—we are not able to simulate deafness. Therefore, as hearing people, it takes a lot of imagining and thinking to realize just what it must be like.”

Looking at the stories of five women, the film showcases the diversity of the deaf community. The stories of the Pink Deafies, as well as their friends and families, according to Allen, have a unifying theme: “You are not alone.” The title signifies endurance, and the Pink Deafies “enact this meaning” as they sew and sign their names to a quilt square to signify their commitment to the group and to breast cancer education.

The central figure in the film (and its co-producer along with Myers) is Anita Buel, who has lived in a “separate world” due to her deafness. She discovered that she had breast cancer 25 years ago, and through the course of the film she learns more about her prognosis and faces her own daughter’s diagnosis of breast cancer. According to the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Buel, Myers and Allen applied for a $5000 grant from the Susan G. Komen Foundation to make “Signing On,” only for the board to be impressed enough with their presentation to double their grant to $10000. The film took four years of extensive work to complete.

Allen, the Ada M. Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor of the Social Sciences at Carleton, has been conducting research in the deaf community for nearly a decade. She has spoken about ways to conduct survey research with deaf people and presented research to the American Public Health Association as well as forums including the Disabilities Initiative at the University of Michigan. Allen has also created an edited version of the film for use by health care professionals in workshops on how best to communicate with deaf patients.

Besides directing the film, Allen created its soundtrack as well as much of the photography and photo finishing. Though this was her first film, Myers described Allen as a “natural” director who “demands the best.” 

“[Allen] has an imagination and vision only equaled by her ability to hold all these thoughts and pictures in her mind and put them into a sequence that makes for a good story,” Myers said.

This event is sponsored by the Carleton College Department of Cinema and Media Studies. The Weitz Center for Creativity is located at 320 East Third Street in Northfield. For more information, including disability accommodations, call (507) 222-5567.