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Review: Voices from El-Sayed – Shablul Bamidbar (2009)

Directed by: Oded Adomi Leshem | 75 minutes |

“Voices from El-Sayed” doesn’t look very slick, but director has chosen an interesting subject for his documentary. It starts with the setting: a Bedouin community in Israel where deafness is just as as wearing glasses. If you’re wondering why that is, wait for the credits. This shows that many residents of El-Sayed bear the surname El-Sayed, which suggests that this form of deafness is hereditary and that within the El-Sayed there is a passionate marriage. At the beginning of the documentary, the inhabitants of the village are offered to have their deaf offspring operated at the expense of the state, giving the children the chance to live a normal life. For an outsider this seems like a great opportunity. Yet there are parents who firmly refuse the operation. A surprising point of view, which becomes increasingly comprehensible as the progresses.

As the jovial Juma El-Sayed (himself deaf) explains, being deaf is not a curse. Certainly not in El-Sayed, where every has one or more deaf children. Deafness is such a phenomenon here that the community is designed for it. Everyone knows sign language, including the hearing residents. Tapping jokes, bawling street bastards, gossiping about the boss, you don’t need a sound. There are other ways to communicate. The video diary of a deaf girl who dreams of becoming a camera woman also proves this. Pictures say more than words. In addition, some residents find that deafness gives them serenity. Juma, for example, thinks it’s fine that he can’t hear the noise in the garage where he works. Deafness is not an obstacle on the marriage market either. When marrying off, it is taken into account that there must always be one hearing partner, otherwise no one will hear the baby cry.

In the in which little Mohammed grows up, he is the only non-hearing child. This may explain why his parents do let him operate. It soon turns out that an implant is not a panacea. You have to learn to hear and talk, a process that takes years. It is moving to see the whole family dedicate themselves to practice with Mohammed. They beat drums, talk to him, with endless patience, without seeming to yield anything. The frustration can be seen on the faces, as is the joy with every small claim. Against the background of all this, the disadvantaged position of the Israeli Bedou is at play. Although El-Sayed is located between the electricity pylons, the village has no connection to the electricity grid. That means that Muhammad’s father must connect a generator to charge his son’s implant. While the monster is mooing, the hearing members of the family put their hands over their ears. How ironic?

“Voices from El-Sayed” proves that having a disability is relative. How people experience their disability depends on how they and their environment deal with it. In that respect, El-Sayed’s example is inspiring. “Voices from El-Sayed” is not very smoothly put together. The editing is a bit angular and in addition, some scenes might have been better left out because they have little to do with the actual theme. On the other hand, Leshem plays nicely with the concept of silence and sound, with which he makes it clear that being able to hear, just like being deaf, has some drawbacks from time to time. And while most of the people who contributed to “Voices from El-Sayed” can’t speak, they have made their voices heard in this documentary.

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