The Silent Child (UK 2017)

Libby (Maisie Sly) and Joanne (Rachel Shenton)

It’s great to be able to comment on this Oscar-winning short film that has received two screenings on BBC1 over Easter and is currently on iPlayer (UK only?). Overseas it also seems to be available via Amazon and iTunes. The film gained an international promotional platform with its Oscar win as Best Live Action Short a few weeks ago.

The Silent Child is a 20 minute short presenting the story of Libby (played by the deaf actor Maisie Sly), a pre-school child who is profoundly deaf and who seems withdrawn and miserable living in a busy and middle-class household in an isolated house in rural England. In a last attempt to do something for Libby before she faces the daunting experience of starting school without the ability to communicate with other children (or her teachers), her mother Sue hires Joanne as a one-to-one tutor. When both parents and their teenage son and daughter go off to work, Joanne, played by the film’s writer Rachel Shenton, sets to make contact with Libby and gradually over the next few days and weeks teaches her the basics of BSL (British Sign Language). Libby’s world and her outlook on it is changed dramatically. But as the school start date draws near, Joanne learns that Sue has decided to stop the tuition. I won’t spoil the rest of the narrative but by this stage many audiences will be in tears and shouting at the screen in frustration. The film ends with some on-screen text that presents the film’s underlying argument in five short statements.

Libby is fascinated by seeing two people signing in a café

For me, this film works very well in presenting its argument in the form of a beautifully-made narrative. The performances are very good and Maisie Sly is phenomenal. I was intrigued to look at the IMDb entry. It hadn’t occurred to me that all the nominated shorts would be reviewed before the Oscars. Some clearly gave the film no chance because the other ‘issues’ struck them as more gripping for (US?) audiences. Some objected to seeing a PSA (public service announcement) film there at all and trotted out the common prejudice about being ‘preached at’. The ‘User comments’ on the other hand are often from viewers who have experienced the issue themselves as parents, teachers or as deaf people. Many give the film 9/10 or 10/10.

Long shots are well used in creating location and the sense of isolation

I’ve written before about short films and the difficulties that the format creates for writers and directors. There is little point reviewing a 20 minute film as if it was simply a shorter version of a feature film. There isn’t the ‘narrative time’ to introduce and develop characters nor the kind of budget to create the ‘narrative space’ in which to set an expansive story. Instead, filmmakers have to think carefully about what kind of narrative they can create and how to make a strong impact given the constraints. The team which made this film are not very experienced as feature filmmakers, though for young ‘creatives’ they have extensive experience of television series as actors. Rachel Shenton experienced her father’s rapid onset of deafness and she has become a signer and an activist in the deaf community. Her partner Craig Overton is a first-time director. I was impressed by the CinemaScope cinematography by Ali Farahani, who also has limited feature film experience but a strong background in a diverse range of other film productions. The Silent Child is actually quite complex in terms of the ‘narrative data’ it offers audiences and the presentation of the narrative is in one sense quite conventional but makes good use of familiar visual language and symbolism. This may be dismissed as ‘melodrama’ by some, especially in the closing scenes in which music, cinematography and mise en scène combine to ‘express’ the isolation that Libby experiences. It worked very well for me.

The film was shot in winter in rural Staffordshire and the long-shot cinematography makes excellent use of mists/fog, the bare spiky trees and wet country roads. It would be a different film made in summer. The rural location is important – there are no other children of Libby’s age to play with close by. Small rural primary schools might be less stressful in some ways but are also less likely to have the funds to support deaf children and may need to mix children of different ages to make reasonable class sizes. Children start formal school, i.e. not nursery school, early in the UK. In England most children will enter school at the start of the term before they become 5 and join a reception class.

Libby is isolated in the classroom . . .

The family in the film is middle-class and this too is important. Middle-class parents might be expected to be more concerned about educational opportunities and to have the wealth and the social status/ work experience which helps them to argue for support of their children. The script of The Silent Child suggests that Libby’s family has its own internal frictions that perhaps negates some of these advantages. One aspect I did like was that the teenage son who develops a crush on Joanne also learns some sign language. I thought this was done with some subtlety. In some ways the film is also about Joanne. Shenton hasn’t given her own character any real identifying features except that she is energetic, cheerful, personable and has both the knowledge and skills to be a successful teacher. I notice some reviewers (and the film’s official website) refer to her as a social worker or a ‘carer’, neither of which are supported by what happens in the film. Is she self-employed? Does she work for a charity or a publicly-funded service? Either way she could be helpful in negotiating with the primary school.

After her son has identified that Libby is signing, Sue passes a glass of orange juice to her. Libby’s swift signing is subtitled in yellow

As someone working with students and public audiences in cinemas I’ve experienced being asked to work with signers and to be aware of lip readers and hearing loop systems. I’ve always been glad to do so but I remember from my schooling how little we learned (it was a long time ago!) about deafness and how poorly deaf students were supported. The Silent Child has two specific devices to bring home to audiences what it might mean to have hearing loss. At one point during a busy, noisy scene the sound is turned off almost completely – just a few seemingly distant bumps of sound as Libby is cut out of the conversation. The other device is to subtitle Libby’s own signing in yellow to distinguish it from all the other dialogue in the film which is subtitled in white. Most audiences will react to the first time we see Libby try out her new skill. If you haven’t seen the film yet, give it a go. And perhaps watch it a few times? It’s a rich text. Here’s the trailer:

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