William Mager: Deaf Filmmaker

William Mager: Deaf Filmmaker

By Tom Seymour 13/04/11

William Mager talks to IdeasTap about directing four independently produced films and managing to pay the bills as a jobbing director for the BBC, despite being profoundly deaf...

Film is an unforgiving business. 

A director expects hundreds of hours of labour for their vision to be put on screen. Every nuance – the tone of an actor's voice, the soundtrack, the imperceptible background noises – needs to be obsessed over. 

So what does that mean for those of us born without hearing? Does that mean film directing isn’t, or can’t be, for them? Should they find another medium to pursue?

That wasn’t a state of affairs William Mager was comfortable with. He was born profoundly deaf, but it never dimmed his love of the movies.

“My mum bought a VHS recorder and a teletext decoder when I was young,” he says. “It meant that they were able to record subtitled films for me way back in the mid-80s so I watched films like Singin' in the Rain and Casablanca over and over and over again. 

“She would rent videos for me every weekend, which weren't subtitled, but they would sit down and explain what the film was about, and pause the film to bring me up to speed with what was going on." 

Will was taken on as trainee at the BBC without having to take the “disability route.” He has now directed four independent short films.

My Song, the latest, has been nominated for best film at Clin d'Oeil, Europe’s leading deaf arts festival, as well as gaining a release on Film4

Despite this success, there have been occasions when Will has been at the sharp end of some pretty stark views. 

“There was one moment in my early career when I was working on a very difficult film for the BBC. The editor turned to me and asked 'Why do you want to work in television?' I replied that I'd wanted to make films and TV from an early age. He replied 'I'm just surprised that's all, with your deafness, that you should choose such an audio visual medium.' Implicit in that was that he thought I wasn't equipped to do the job properly.

“At the time I was too stressed and tired to respond properly, but it preyed on my mind for a long time. From that point onwards I knew I had to be more clear about how deafness was an obstacle, and how I would overcome that obstacle in making films and TV.”

But Will has never let his disability define him. He can lip-read and has learnt to speak without being able to hear what he is saying, allowing him to direct his actors and crew. Nevertheless, his abilities as a director continue to be questioned. 

“It's never going to go away for me. Even now, if I meet an executive producer, their first question is usually an incredulous 'How do you use the phone?' or 'How much can you hear?'

“When I was young, I thought life would get easier as I got older and those sort of questions would fade away. Sadly, they don't.” 

But Mager’s determination is buoyed by a belief that evolutions in attitudes and technology will continue to open up this audio-visual medium to the deaf community.

“The first movies were silent so cinema in the early days was accessible to both deaf and hearing people. It was Al Jolson who killed cinema for deaf people with The Jazz Singer, but now with more accessible screenings in cinemas and subtitled DVDs, deaf people are finding their way back into watching and making films. It's much easier for a deaf person to get their film funded and seen than it was 10 years ago - people are more open minded.

“’Like Al Jolson said, ‘You ain't heard nothing yet!’”

 

My Song will be screened on Film4 and the Community Channel from Monday 23 May. For running times or to see the film online, go to the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust.

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