Writing ‘My Song’ – Diary of a Scriptwriter

This article was first published in the June 2011 issue of the Hearing Times.

On Monday 23rd May, My Song –  a 24 minute drama I’ve written, directed by William Mager – was broadcast on digital TV and online. Just a few weeks before, I opened a drawer at home and found an outline for the film dated 1st March – except it was dated 1st March 2010, instead of this year! Fair to say then, that the film’s been in the making for some time.

The first seeds of the story that became My Song were sown back in 2008. Through stories people told me, things I saw at Deaf events and even some of my own formative experiences, I’d started to ask the question: what’s life like if you don’t feel like you fit into the hearing world, yet you don’t fit into the Deaf (note the big D) world either? After all, there are so many variables that make each deaf person unique – perhaps explained by a line from the final script: “every deaf person is different. Their family, their school, their language.”

As time went on, I met more and more people who felt like they were in the middle in some way. I could even relate to that feeling myself, having grown up in a deaf family but attended a mainstream school. As deaf schools have closed, more and more deaf children are being educated in mainstream settings – putting the onus on them to seek out the Deaf world later in life. So how would they find their way into the community, and what attitudes might they encounter?

I started to think about ways of dramatising a story that could bring out the stories and issues (and, without giving anything away, one issue in particular that I had witnessed and felt strongly about) that a person who finds themselves between the two worlds might face.

The story that became My Song grew over time; daydreaming on long train journeys across London; in conversations with friends and family; during long nights in the pub with William Mager, who directed the film (our third collaboration after the comedies Hands Solo and The Fingerspellers). William was enthusiastic about the film from the start and contributed many of the ideas that went into the proposal and then the final script.

Nearly a year ago, we were awarded funding by the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust, setting up our own production company, C&B Films to produce it. My Song would focus on a teenage girl called Ellen, who has grown up in a hearing family but decides to learn sign language so she can seek out the deaf world.

I started writing the film while in Canada last summer with my partner and young daughter, and after another seven drafts (!) finished it just weeks before our second child was born in November. (By the way, if you think writing seven drafts is hard work, I advise you to try fatherhood!)

We auditioned ten actresses for the leading role, and felt encouraged when each one of them said that they felt they could relate to the story – many of them felt as though they were ‘in the middle’ too. William, the producer Dee Hellier and I chose Lara Steward, a very promising young actress who made an impression on us with a small part in last year’s BBC1 drama The Silence.

Filming took place during the coldest week of winter (although perhaps luckily for me, I was at home changing nappies in relative warmth!) and on the final day I had to rewrite a key scene and email it to the set while still in my pyjamas – all because one of the actors got stuck in the snow and couldn’t make it!

After months of editing, sound design, graphics, marketing and a thousand emails, the film was finally finished in March and now it’s available for anyone to see, online. I’m proud of the film, and the hard work that everyone involved – William in particular – put into it. We hope the film makes people think, and challenges attitudes, while being entertaining at the same time. Above all, we hope you enjoy My Song.

For more information about the funders of My Song, the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust, click here.

For more information about the director of My Song, William Mager, click here.

Review: Deaf Sisterhood

First published in the June 2011 issue of the Hearing Times.

Aran Slade is 27, white, and deaf. She’s also – like over 5000 people in the UK each year – considering converting to Islam. Her exploration of the religion and culture she’s thinking about joining forms the basis of this excellent documentary, funded by the BSLBT (British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust).

At the start of the film we find out more about Aran. She’s training to be a teacher of the deaf, and seems open-minded – although she’s been a Christian for 10 years, we learn that she helped fund her studies by organising Ann Summers parties. She seems perfectly normal, likable and intelligent.

Aran has become interested in Islam after meeting her Muslim partner, Saghir, and the most interesting – and touching – scenes in the documentary come when she discusses the possibility of converting with her mother, who is supportive, but concerned that her daughter might fall into something she cannot get out of.

However, when we see Aran meeting deaf Muslims, they seem friendly, warm and approachable, and above all, keen to explain what their religion is really about. We meet a deaf girl who is posting sign language videos about Islam to YouTube – finding a new way of passing on information about her faith.

The highlight of the film is when a group of girls help dress Aran in a headscarf so she can see how she might look if she decided to convert. Aran becomes emotional as she is faced with a new version of herself – and what could be her future.

Aran doesn’t jump in, though. We see how making her mind up is something we wants to be sure about. When she later talks to a friend who is a committed Christian, there is an interesting debate as Aran defends her point of view. This exchange showed how dedicated followers of every faith believe their way to be the ‘right way’, and made me think about how, on a broader level, Muslims are often portrayed in this country as outsiders, the ‘other,’ almost as if there is an assumption that there’s something ‘wrong’ with the religion and those who follow it – a point of view this film helps to counter.

The great achievement of Deaf Sisterhood is how it serves to humanise Islam and Muslims. This documentary helps us see the people, places and beliefs behind the headlines, and ultimately, makes us think again. I’d love to see a catch-up instalment of the documentary in the future, to find out how Aran gets on as she continues her journey.

Credits: Director Bim Ajadi; Researcher/Producer Cathy Heffernan; 2nd Camera Ted Evans; Co-producer: Karen Gilchrist.

Deaf Sisterhood will be broadcast on Film 4 and the Community Channel from Monday 6th June, to find times and dates, go to http://bslbt.co.uk . It will also be available (in full) online at: http://www.bslbt.co.uk/programmes/deaf-sisterhood/

Interview with Cathy Heffernan, producer of ‘Deaf Sisterhood’

First published in the June edition of the Hearing Times.

Cathy works for The Guardian and has a background of working in television. She is the producer of a brand-new documentary for the BSLBT, called Deaf Sisterhood, about Aran, a deaf woman considering converting to Islam.

What is your background in television?

I worked as a researcher on Hands On – Ireland’s version of the BBC’s deaf television programme See Hear – a few years ago, after a short stint with Mentorn TV Productions. I absolutely loved it, but then a traineeship at the Guardian came along and I couldn’t pass it up, so my career took a different path! I’ve always wanted to get back into TV in one way or another.

What is the aim of Deaf Sisterhood?

In a nutshell – to provide a glimpse into a community so misrepresented by society and the media. On a broader level we wanted to look at Islam and some of its practices, and look at a deaf woman’s reasons for joining a religion that has been so stigmatised in recent years.

How did you come up with the idea for the film?

As debate over wearing the burqa and the niqab raged over the last few years, I always wondered about the impact of a face veil on deaf women. So I went to a talk at a mosque expecting to meet several women who covered their faces – only to find that a tiny minority of women wear niqabs. No-one knew of any deaf women who wore one! I realised that far from being submissive women forced to wear veils, they were empowered women who chose to wear them. That in itself interested me as there are so many stereotypes about Muslim women that simply seeing what they are really like was enlightening.

How did you find Aran, the focus of the film?

We had a story and were all set to go with it when one of the contributors’ circumstances changed so we couldn’t do the documentary we had planned. So we were in despair trying to find another story. We went up to an Eid party in Birmingham to film some other potential contributors and that was where I met Aran. She was very interested in Islam and was toying with the idea of converting and that seemed the perfect way to look at the Islamic community – through the eyes of an outsider learning about the religion and culture.

What were the people you met during the making of the film like?

Really likeable! Aran is really warm and was very generous with her time. And I found people in the Muslim community very intelligent and enquiring. While I tried to remain neutral, from time to time I couldn’t help myself and asked them about their beliefs and practices – but rather than take offence, they were always up for a good old debate! I think the documentary does show a community of people for whom Islam is a peaceful religion and a way of life, rather than the way it’s often portrayed in the media.

You worked closely with Bim Adaji, the director of the film, and Ted Evans, who filmed it, who are both also deaf. How did you all work as a team?

As this was my first one-off TV programme, I had a lot to learn! I thought the mixture of deaf and hearing crew worked really well on this programme and we all had different strengths: Bim with his directing and editing, Ted with his filming skills, and Karen Gilchrist from Redbird Media (the production company behind the film) coming from a documentary production background. Then there was me with my journalism. We gelled really well!

Are you hoping to make more documentaries in the future?

Oh yes – the world’s full of fascinating people and topics just waiting to be turned into TV. Once the time and the funding’s there!

To see Deaf Sisterhood in full, go to http://www.bslbt.co.uk/programmes/deaf-sisterhood/