Growing up in North Philadelphia, José Saldaña could often be found glued to the TV watching movies, like any kid. But since José had been diagnosed as deaf at age 2, he couldn’t read the characters’ lips and didn’t yet have the benefit of closed captioning. So, in a sense, there were two movies being shown in his den: the one experienced by the hearing world and the one unfolding in José’s mind, with dialogue and plot twists he created as he saw fit.
“I always analyzed movie’s story. Forced my wild [imagination] about what happened in movie,” writes Saldaña, who usually communicates through American Sign Language. (We sat down together for a typed question-and-answer session at Gallaudet University, where Saldaña is studying digital media and theater.) But now the 29-year-old Saldaña has produced and directed 17 short films and videos of his own. His latest, The Cellar, premiered in the recent 2004 DC Independent Film Festival along with eight other student films.
Silent and shot in digital video, the 20-minute Cellar resembles Saldaña’s other works: a sci-fi/suspense flick of the aliens-and-hairy-beasts variety, featuring both deaf and hearing actors. The narrative of the film has a deaf man buying a Philadelphia row house from a deaf realtor, only to realize later that something inhuman is living in his basement.
Saldaña, who’s written more than 80 short stories (some in American Sign) since childhood, says his out-there plot lines and freakish creatures are an antidote to what he calls the usual “copy-and-paste” jobs by deaf filmmakers, in which major movies like The Terminator are simply remade with deaf casts.
“That’s why hearing studios not really interested [in deaf filmmakers],” says Saldaña, who has an interpreter on his sets when he shoots. “I want deaf filmmakers write more creative for attract hearing studios.”
Saldaña started turning his short stories into movies while a film student at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the mid-’90s. The D.C. indie fest marked his first crack at a general audience, although he did screen his short The Amazing Story at the 2002 Festival of Cinema for the Deaf in Chicago and has made others available for download at www.deafnation.com. Ovi Velasquez, a fellow Gallaudet student, says he likes the way Saldaña plays games with the traditional roles of deaf and hearing actors. In The Cellar, the deaf realtor has the screen to himself in the opening scenes; the audience doesn’t realize he can’t hear until he signs with the homebuyer.
“I was always tired of hearing actor/actress who plays like deaf,” writes Velazquez. “I never thought that a real-life deaf actor [could play] like a hearing person. I think it is so cool.”
Regarding Hollywood, Saldaña also worries that studios could be scared off by his deafness, and he thinks a lot of scripts from deaf writers get tossed because of their poor English. But for any studio willing to take a flier on him, he’s offering to use half his director’s salary for an interpreter. “I’m sure they will [be] surprised I can do it,” Saldaña writes, just before locking the keyboard in all-caps. “COME ON. I MEAN, I CAN DO IT!” —Dave Jamieson