Deaf Film Camp
Where summer fun meets self-expression
by Amy Feiereisel
“One!” Veronica shouts, as the director of Deaf Film Camp, Michael Kaufer, signs the number to the campers, counselors and teachers in the dining hall. They stomp their feet. The floor trembles.
“Two!” Campers raise and shake their hands furiously.
“Three!” They clap as though it’s the curtain call of a Broadway performance.
“Four!” The group takes a collective deep breath before erupting in uninhibited, guttural yells.
“Five!” Veronica shouts, “D … F … C!” as campers enthusiastically sign the same letters.
Everyone smiles widely, their faces flushed. But it’s far from over. Michael grins mischievously and then signs while Veronica yells, “Oh, come on, we can do better than that. ONE!”
And it begins again. Deaf Film Camp is anything but quiet.
I arrive on a sunny afternoon near the tail end of the two-week-long camp, unsure what to expect. All I know is that Deaf Film Camp is fully staffed and attended by deaf adults and children, and that an interpreter named Veronica will translate for me.
I quickly realize Veronica is a lifeline during the few minutes I stand alone in the front lobby. There are dozens of conversations in action, kids streaming around me, peals of laughter, but I am … invisible, like a piece of furniture to be maneuvered around. Then Veronica arrives and I am a person again; she signs for me, and I listen to her rapid-fire translation of others’ responses while trying to keep eye contact with the interviewee. Veronica fades into the background (the sign of a great interpreter), taking on the personality of whomever she is talking for. She speaks as quickly as they sign, and lowers or raises her voice depending on how “big” an individual’s motions are, highlighting just how physical the act of signing is. Hands whirl and stop abruptly in the air; facial cues are used to signify punctuation and emotion, the torso never stops moving. It is whole-body communication.
We take a quick tour around the compact campus and Veronica gives me the rundown of Camp Mark Seven’s history, which began in 1981 when its founder, Father Tom Coughlin, snapped up the old Mohawk Hotel property near Old Forge following a three-year search around the Adirondacks. There were other bidders, but Father Tom had a lot going for him—he was a priest, he wanted to establish a camp for deaf kids, and he could pay 100,000 community-raised dollars in cash.
It’s been over 30 years since then, but the camp has kept much of the character of its previous incarnation. Veronica, whose parents are both deaf, started attending the camp as a child and says almost nothing has changed. “The fireplace, that Indian head … definitely the chairs—it’s all the same.” The main building is a stately, bright-red structure with an airy outdoor porch framed by pillars. You can see Fourth Lake from the front steps, just a short walk away across the rolling lawn.
While Camp Mark Seven has hosted general summer camps for deaf children for 35 years, it’s been innovative with its subsequent programming—first with KODA (or Kids Of Deaf Adults), a session for hearing children who’ve grown up in deaf culture, and now with the session I’m visiting—Deaf Film Camp, which celebrates its fifth year in 2017.
During the first three years, camp leaders involved campers in producing one big music video. But in 2016 Michael Kaufer, the new director, mixed things up. “As a former teacher, I had a different point of view. I want all campers to be able to come and learn the craft of filmmaking for their own future, instead of just being a part of making a music video.”
On the day of my visit the kids are furiously putting two weeks of filmmaking training into practice. They are writing, producing and editing their own short films in small groups. One group is shooting out on the camp dock, using both a handheld camera and a drone to get different shots of a nightmare scene in which the lead actor falls into the lake. The next day and last night at camp, they will premiere the films at Old Forge’s Strand Theatre.
Storm Smith, one of the teachers, sees filmmaking as a natural fit for deaf people, saying, “Deaf individuals are intensely visual, and that makes for a totally different watching experience. You can focus purely on the message and the story. And it’s a way for hearing people to learn about us.”
The teachers are an eclectic and distinguished group of professionals who are volunteering their extensive experience in the film industry. Storm is a producer of creative marketing for Gallaudet University. There’s an animation producer, a former Miss Deaf America, two photographers, a slam poet–visual artist. When I meet the acting teacher, Daniel Durant, I’m starstruck, recognizing him from Broadway’s Spring Awakening and the television series Switched at Birth.
Audrey Gray, a 15-year-old first-time camper from Maryland, loved Daniel’s acting class—“It was fun to see how you can put on a character, and change over a character arc”—but explains she’s just as interested in producing films. “Now that I know how to use the equipment, I can make more short films at home. People all over the world can see my work. It can disrupt the idea that people have that deaf people can’t do things just because they can’t hear.”
The other campers are equally excited about learning and using their new skills when they return home. Deaf Film Camp’s pool of participants is diverse, drawing kids from all over America. In 2016 they had a Swedish camper who needed an interpreter of her own to translate between Swedish Sign Language and American Sign Language (ASL). But apparently that didn’t last long, since I find her interpreter chatting with the teachers, her charge nowhere in sight. “She’s fully submerged into ASL, after less than two weeks,” she tells me.
The opportunity to inhabit a deaf cultural space is an enormous draw for the campers. During the rest of their lives, most of them are “mainstreamed,” meaning they attend hearing schools and live in hearing communities. Camp Mark Seven of–fers a community that exists in precious few other places.
“During the school year, I’m the only one who signs,” says Audrey. “But I come here and no one stares at me. You really fit in and it’s really fun.”
It occurs to me that my discomfort standing in the lobby before Veronica started translating for me is something these campers grapple with every day—except here. Their happiness is contagious.
The setting is also special to them for its natural beauty, something Charmaine Hlibok, a Camp Mark Seven board member, gushes about. “Nature brings out the best in the kids. Being in this idyllic setting, I think it gets their creative juices flowing. ”
During dinner, the dock team shows me the latest cut of their film on a laptop. It’s slick and funny, with a production value I didn’t expect from teenagers.
Post-dinner hours are technically free time, but the kids get straight to work watching and editing their footage, huddled around monitors in an activity room. Another group, including a 17-year-old named Orren Mehan, edits their film.
This is Orren’s second year in the program, and he says he loves this summer’s increased autonomy. He’s made his own films at home since he was 12. Orren is a comedian on screen, but serious as an editor. “It’s not ready yet,” he and his teammates assure me several times. “This is just a rough cut.”
They’re still editing when night falls and I slip away, unnoticed.