Emilio Insolera’s “Sign Gene” gave the world its first deaf superheroes. But after writing, directing, producing and starring in the film himself, you might argue that Insolera is the one with the superpowers.
And the filmmaker says he can thank a stint in Japan for helping him take advantage of his abilities. Insolera visited Japan a decade ago on vacation and was inspired to create his film, which centers on a genetic mutation that causes people who are deaf to develop powers like shooting invisible bullets from their fingers and opening locked doors with their minds.
“Creatively, it all started with Japan,” Insolera tells The Japan Times. “My first impression was that I had stumbled into the future, but as a linguist I was also instantly fascinated with Japanese and how it has a relationship with sign language. Kanji are usually concepts or ideas and then hiragana acts as a bridge for communication It’s the same with sign language: We use fingerspelling (spelling out the alphabet with your hands) between our conceptual signs.”
Born in Argentina to parents who are also deaf, Insolera spent much of his childhood in Italy before graduating with a degree in linguistics and film from Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world’s only liberal arts university for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. He also earned a master’s degree in mass communication from Sapienza University of Rome. Given his educational background, linguistic similarities weren’t the only things he noticed between the way he worked and the country he was visiting.
“As a fan of comics, I was also interested in manga,” Insolera says. “The way of portraying stories here is similar to what I do as a visual communicator — using classifiers, broadening the visual vernacular and pushing boundaries in the conventional sense. I was intrigued by Japan’s high level of visual language.”
Eventually, the filmmaker extended his vacation.
“I was actually at the airport, waiting for my flight to New York, when I turned around and went back,” he recalls, adding that his stay wasn’t without challenges. He was always short on money, and relocated to Osaka from Tokyo to try to cut down on costs.
“Most of my friends were teaching English, even if they had different goals,” he says. “I couldn’t teach English as a deaf person, of course, and some of my friends suggested that I teach American Sign Language, but it didn’t really interest me.
Insolera’s limited options forced him to focus on his creative ambitions instead of getting sidetracked by the daily grind of expat life.
“I’m lucky to be deaf because that separated me from those communities that keep you wrapped up in a daily occupation that can distract you from your goals,” Insolera says. “I had a lot of time for writing. In Osaka, it was easier to make local connections and I could really focus on my script.”
Influenced by films such as Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982) and “Black Rain” (1989), as well as the animated 1988 film “Akira,” Insolera originally planned to make an experimental, gritty short. As he gathered a small base of deaf actors, however, his plans grew.
“Everyone was going out and spreading the word, and so many people in Osaka wanted to be a part of the project,” he recalls. “People were really encouraging me to make a longer film because the story was complex, and that gave me the motivation to push forward and write a full script.”
The completed film, “Sign Gene,” premiered in Japan earlier this year and is returning for broader release. The Los Angeles Times praised the film’s sound design and said it energetically blended elements of “X-Men,” “The Da Vinci Code” and the James Bond films. Other critics enjoyed the incorporation of deaf figures from history as much as the sci-fi element.
Insolera plays the lead role, a deaf secret agent named Tom Clerc — a fictional descendent of Laurent Clerc, a French educator from the 1800s dubbed the “Apostle of the Deaf in America.” Tom, who has lost his superpowers after a battle with his hero-turned-villain brother, is sent along with his colleague Ken Wong (Danny Gong) to Osaka to investigate a spate of crimes that seem to have connections to gene mutations. Their investigation leads them to deaf criminal Tatsumi Fuwa (Hiroshi Vava), who has learned to harness the mutations to rise to power.
Featuring a deaf cast and crew, the 70-minute film is groundbreaking in many ways, especially considering its limited budget. Insolera took the opportunity to both entertain and teach about the realities of the deaf community.
“I had to decide on a visual style that would match my budget, so I thought of a vintage, grainy look right away,” Insolera says. “But, during edits, other layers became important. Since I have never personally had one language to communicate with, I wanted to represent a multilingual reality in the film.
“Visual communication is my native language, but I speak Spanish and Italian, and my parents use Argentinian sign language. My father also used Italian sign language and we all use Italian gestures.
“I also felt the film couldn’t be just one language, that it was meant to be a global mix of ways to communicate — through ‘visual’ and ‘audio’ languages.”
When it came to sound design, Insolera says the crew used a lot of filters, “like static or fast-forwarding sounds to mimic barriers of communication. There’s a jarring effect of sound in the film that impedes understanding, a metaphor for the interruptions in communication that we routinely experience.”
Since the film first premiered in Italy last year, and in the United States in April, Insolera has found himself busy with the hustle and bustle of the entertainment world. But he says that hasn’t stopped him from taking advantage of his new platform to teach others about the wider deaf community. For one thing, he believes we need to start rethinking the use of the word “deaf.”
“Deaf is a misguided term,” he says. “It has a strong association with sound, but as an auditory word, I don’t relate to it. Anything related to ‘visual’ or ‘vision’ would better represent and empower, like ‘visual speaking’ or ‘visual language.'”
Insolera also has a new, personal motivation for his activism: He and his partner, the deaf Norwegian model Carola Insolera (whom he met in Tokyo and who also plays a role in the film), are the parents of a deaf daughter.
“I have a 3-year-old now who just started mainstream preschool,” he says. “At playtime she’s interacting, she’s happy, but when she sits down with other children talking or the teacher is only talking, she’s not picking up on the communication anymore. After physiological needs, communication is the next basic human need, and it’s obvious that language is both auditory and visual.
“Schools should make visual language a priority. It’s a basic skill that can diversify the curriculum, so I am actively trying to promote the idea of teaching visual language in schools, even just a year or two of the basics.”
To some, these may be small steps in forwarding discussion on issues of communication and reputation. To deaf children everywhere, however, Insolera’s efforts are equal to that of any Marvel star.