Art is communication.
– Madeleine L’Engle, American writer, from Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art
When filmmaker Anna Schumacher attended the premiere of a Deaf-made film in St. Louis in early 2013, she met Annette Nitko, a Deaf breast cancer survivor. At the time Annette was diagnosed seven years ago, there were no support groups for Deaf and hard-of-hearing breast cancer patients at all in the country. So Annette started her own support group called Pink Wings of Hope. “I was very inspired by this story,” Anna said – and for two important reasons. Anna’s maternal grandmother, whom she was very close to, battled breast and lung cancer. When her grandmother passed away 15 years ago, she got involved with various cancer awareness/education, advocacy, and fundraising efforts, including being captain of her Relay for Life walkathon team. Anna is also fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), has deep roots with the Deaf West Theatre, a theatre group that presents its productions in ASL, and has many close friends and industry colleagues who are Deaf.
Annette’s story made Anna think about how alienating it must be for a Deaf breast cancer patient to attend a support group with an interpreter, and it became the inspiration for her second short film. “On the one hand, you’re sitting in a room full of women who understand what it feels like to be in your position,” Anna noted. “But on the other hand, there is so much of what your life is like that they can’t possibly understand. There’s a disconnect.” In Finding June, she explores how we can be connected without language. Anna’s short film is one of six chosen for this year’s LUNAFEST, the national traveling film festival “by, for, about women” that raises funds for local charities and its main beneficiary, the Breast Cancer Fund.
“I really hope that after people see this film, the next time they’re in line at the post office or at a coffee shop and see someone signing they will change how they view that person,” Anna said. “I hope to make people be aware of all the tiny moments that we so rarely pause at and have an ah-ha moment.” Referring to the scenes at the campfire and when the main protagonist, June, is holding her brother’s hand, Anna pointed out, “Those small scenes matter. There’s no start-to-finish with them, but they’re there.”
The Kensington, California, native got involved in theatre when she was a student at Portola (now Fred T. Korematsu) Middle School in El Cerrito. “It was such a good place for me to feel connected, and it’s something that I carried with me to college,” Anna related. When she attended the University of California at Davis to pursue theatre arts, she found out what didn’t work for her. “I quickly realized that I, as an artist, didn’t really fit into a lot of mainstream and contemporary theatre,” she explained. While she respected those who did, she gravitated to the MFA students who were doing experimental theatre and had “more space to play around.”
“That spoke to me. We could mix media with our performance. You can have a show over video or have movement with dialogue – just more avenues to tell a story within one performance experience,” Anna explained. “I knew that I wanted to be a performer, but I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to look like.”
After graduating with a BA in theatre, Anna returned to the Bay Area but was still interested in continuing her education. She enrolled in an ASL class taught by Rory Osbrink at Berkeley City College and was “immediately hooked” on the first day. “I fell in love with the language,” she enthused. “It’s a very grammatically and syntactically complex language, but it’s a visual language. You’re actually painting pictures and playing with the physical space as you communicate.” And as a theatre person, it made perfect sense that she embraced ASL. Osbrink encouraged Anna to volunteer at the Fremont School for the Deaf, where she also took a Deaf studies class taught by Osbrink, who runs the school’s bilingual education department. In her cultural studies class, she was awakened to the marginalization of Deaf people and the concept of allyship, an evolving relationship built upon trust, compassion, accountability, and responsiveness between someone who is in a marginalized group and someone who is outside of that group.
Osbrink told Anna about Deaf West Theatre, whose productions are accessible to both hearing and Deaf audiences by way of double-casting via sign language or super-titles projected on the stage. She moved to Los Angeles and found work at the theatre group and later as an interpreter for a Deaf actor who was cast in the ABC television show Switched at Birth. While on set, Anna learned a lot about production, especially lighting. Through her connections with Deaf West Theatre, she was introduced to Ahimsa Collective, now called cARTel: Collaborative Arts LA, an arts and entertainment company that comprises a performance ensemble, clowning troupe, film and music festival, and an art party of commissioned installation work. Under cARTel, Anna worked as a performer, clown, clown-workshop teacher, and visual artist.
Becoming the filmmaker: We, Seahorses
When cARTel hosted the No Budget Film Festival, Anna decided to submit what would be her first short film, We, Seahorses, and enlisted the help of friends. “There was no pressure because nobody had spent very much money on their films,” she explained. Not only did cARTel offer her artistic freedom and support, but its filmmakers served as mentors for Anna. Her cast included Deaf characters, so Anna reached out to her Deaf friends, who pored over the script. Her friend, Ruan Du Plessis, who is also Deaf and a fellow filmmaker, served as her director of photography (DP). (He also was DP for Finding June.) Deaf filmmaker Jules Dameron served as script translator. The cast spent a long time breaking down who the characters were, how they might sign, and how they sign with various people. “Deaf folks who have a Deaf family have a different linguistic approach to language that those who have a more English-based language development, or a more oral-language background,” Ann explained. On the other hand, hearing signers who have Deaf parents sign differently that those who learned later in life. How ASL is used in conversation depends on these and other factors, including whom the signers are interacting with, which is also factor with spoken language.
“I enjoy the process of not feeling confined to a certain narrative structure or performance format – like a two-act play – all the time,” she said, of the process of writing the script. “I like thinking and knowing early on that you don’t always have to fit into that box.” Anna experimented with flashbacks, flash forwards, and frozen memories to tell the story of how we attach ourselves to things for better or worse and the difficult transition that follows when that attachment is severed. “I played around with the rules around making a piece of art beforehand, which made me feel confident in doing that in the film,” she explained. Anna’s first effort won a festival award in Cinematography with Ruan. The experience emboldened her to make her second film, Finding June, whose musical score was composed by her long-time best friend and fellow El Cerrito High School graduate Matt Takimoto.
Anna is currently in pre-production as an actor in a couple of films being made by friends. She is also working on two short films of her own – one explores the lives of several characters who cross paths throughout the queer community and the other is experimental, involving voiceover manipulation and music installations. This time around, she’s writing grants to fund her projects.
You are what you do
Anna has taken a circuitous route to becoming a filmmaker. When people ask if she’s a writer or an actor, she takes to heart what her friend Chase once said to her: “If you like the thing and you do the thing, then you are the thing.” This piece of advice has come in handy. “You don’t have to explain yourself,” she said, with this new mindset. And it’s the advice she offers to others: “Don’t make apologies for what you want to do and how you want to do it.” As a filmmaker, she’s experienced trying times, but Anna approaches these difficulties by acknowledging the uncomfortable feelings, saving them for future inspiration, and carrying on. “All those feelings will then be the next project – the next film or painting or music,” she said. “It’s all a big circle – the constant process to make the project that you want, which will show itself when it’s ready to show itself. This is not to be apologized for or explained away. You don’t have to convince anyone of anything.” With two successful short films under the belt, Anna, indeed, doesn’t need to persuade anyone of her creative capabilities.
Note: You can see Anna’s short film at LUNAFEST East Bay’s screening on Saturday, March 19th, 7:30pm, at the El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.