Sarah uncovers the story of a new movie called Retreat, that’s going to be the first British film with a deaf director and an all-deaf cast.

Over the past few years, more and more short films have been produced in British Sign Language. This hasn’t gone completely under the radar. In 2017, the short film The Silent Child won an Oscar for its portrayal of a young girl learning how to sign. But it’s only now, in 2020, that a feature film is being made in British Sign Language.

Retreat is written and directed by award-winning deaf director Ted Evans. Evans began his career working for a small production company. He then became a researcher for the BBC’s long-running deaf programme See Hear and worked his way up to being a director for the show. He’s won many awards for his short films and was longlisted for a BAFTA for his short film To Know Him, a story about a grieving woman trying to contact her deaf partner’s estranged hearing father. In 2012, he was chosen to write and direct the short film Look Up for the London Paralympics opening ceremony. Retreat is his debut feature and is currently in pre-production.

The movie isn’t just the first feature film in British Sign Language, it’s also the first British film with a deaf director and an all deaf-cast. It’s being made by 104 Films and Escape Films, and financed by iFeatures, a low-budget film development programme that awards money to directors and producers who haven’t made a feature film (albeit a programme currently under threat). Retreat’s story and unique viewpoint made it stand out from hundreds of other applicants for the programme.

The Plot

The story centres on Matt, a young man, who’s grown up in an all deaf commune and starts to question its practices. The commune’s ethos is to separate itself from the hearing world. But the once naive Matt challenges the way the system works. He discovers a dark secret at the core of the community which shows just how far Mia, the commune’s leader, is prepared to go to preserve their way of life. Matt is faced with an agonising decision: remain in a community he no longer trusts, or leave and risk the commune’s potential destruction.

Retreat is loosely based on Evans’ short film of the same name. He’s had the idea of making a feature film about a deaf commune with a Machiavellian leader for years, but decided that it would be sensible to try it as a short film first. Many of the key elements are the same, but Evans’ short film is from the perspective of someone who has just arrived at the commune. Originally, the feature was also going to be from an outsider’s perspective, but the story wasn’t working, particularly when Evans changed the ending. Evans and the team behindi decided that they could make a much more powerful film if they focused on someone who had lived in the community their whole life and then discovered its dark secrets.

Preparations

The film will start shooting in late 2020. Preparing to make the film requires a different mindset than working on an ordinary feature. Before they start shooting, the team needs to consider the practical and creative elements that go into making a film in British Sign Language. Producer Michelle Stein told me a little about it. “The script will be translated from English into Sign Language and then back into English again for the benefit of the hearing crew, producers and execs. The process of translation will involve the actors, director and a language specialist. The director and director of photography also have to visually plan the film in a very detailed way as Sign Language is a visual language so framing and camera moves need to be carefully planned because our options in the edit will be more limited than a film in which the dialogue is heard.”

They are also planning on having several interpreters on set. This will ensure that the deaf and hearing crews, and the director, actors and producers can understand each other and everything that’s going on. The low budget nature of the film means that they’re limited in how much they can do. Stein stated that they had to make a few compromises in their vision for the story. “As we’re an iFeature our budget is very small so as we travel towards production we need to streamline the script.” The need to balance money and creativity is something they have in common with a lot of indie films.

The Cast

That hasn’t been the only challenge. The film requires a lot of deaf actors, but few deaf individuals go into acting. Stein explained the situation. “In the UK, there is a vibrant deaf theatre scene, but the pool of talent is obviously very limited. This is a systemic social problem in that we should be encouraging anyone interested in acting to get into it and providing opportunities for development.”

In terms of the casting process, the team wanted to make it easier for deaf actors to audition. So Evans took time out of his schedule to record a casting video in British Sign Language. They didn’t just want to have a written document in English in case an actor’s primary means of communication was sign language. Evans has a history of casting actors with little experience and getting a great performance out of them. Jemma Joyce, the star of Evans’ short film To Know Him, was relatively inexperienced but delivered a compelling performance. So there’s every possibility that they will discover a terrific new talent in casting Retreat.

The Audience

The film is obviously targeted towards those in the deaf community, but there’s a huge desire for it to have a crossover appeal. After all, the idea of questioning a system you previously accepted is something almost everyone can relate to. Given Evans’ previous success, there’s every reason to believe that Retreat will be critically acclaimed. The hope is that it will inspire others and be the first of many feature-length films in British Sign Language.

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