ALEX VANN AND GARY O’DOWD
Exploring Deaf and Hearing issues
Two Worlds is a ground breaking music video by Alex Vann and Gary O’Dowd from the West Midlands. The song was written by musician Alex who then collaborated with his partner Gary, who is a Deaf person, to produce it as a music video. The film is ground breaking because it incorporates British Sign Language.
Alex told us “I met my partner Gary in July 2006 and it became apparent very early on that if we were to communicate effectively I would have to learn British Sign Language (BSL)”.
Gary was born profoundly Deaf. Alex had some deaf awareness, because his mother was hearing impaired, but he says there is a vast difference between being heard if you raise your voice and never being heard:
“A profoundly Deaf person can not hear you, no matter how loud you scream!” says Alex. “So there is never going to be a time that Gary could learn to hear—so I would have to learn how to sign”.
“So it was after a few dates, reading text messages from each other’s phones to communicate, that I enrolled in night class at my local college, Wolverhampton College. It went well and I seemed to pick sign language up quickly and within two years I was qualified to Level 2. You can go further through the levels up to 6, but this is usually for those who want to work professionally as interpreters, which I had no interest in doing: I just wanted to communicate with my boyfriend and his friends”.
Gary was born and bred in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Gary’s brother is also Deaf but everyone else in the family is hearing. Whilst Gary went to a school for Deaf children, his brother attended a hearing school, which meant that their experiences of education and childhood were different. Alex became interested in the experiences of Deaf people in a hearing world:
“A couple of years into the relationship we got talking one night in our local pub about Gary’s attempts to communicate with his hearing family and friends. As a song writer and musician, my songs tend to be about people, places and perspectives, so it seemed natural to write a song about Gary’s experiences”.
“From the word go I wanted the song to appeal to both hearing and Deaf audiences so we decided it would be signed by Gary at the same time as it was sung by me. The song is titled Two Worlds.”
Alex wrote the notes, chords and lyrics of the song to try to reflect Gary’s viewpoint as a Deaf person. He recorded the song at his home studio and it appears on his album Silhouettes and Pirouettes Volume 1.
After performing the song live at Artsfest in Birmingham and various other venues, Gary and Alex worked with well-known Deaf actress and Sign Song performer Caroline Parker MBE. Caroline helped them to add more expression to the signing of the lyrics and this led to them thinking about the idea of making a video with the aim of showing it at the annual Deaffest festival at the Lighthouse in Wolverhampton. Alex told us:
“Deaffest is a fantastic celebration of Deaf film and culture. Our aim was to make a film and try to get it screened at the festival. We researched Deaf culture: reading among other books, Paddy Ladd’s Understanding Deaf Culture and Being Deaf: The Experience of Deafness. Then we borrowed some video equipment and spent many hours editing footage taken on various cameras in our conservatory at home”.
The resulting film was made on a shoestring and is split into two sections. The first section is an interview documentary with Gary and the second section is a performance of the song in 2 languages, BSL and English, at the same time using split screen technology.
As there were just two people involved in making this film, Gary also became co-director, cameraman, art director, photographer, wardrobe assistant and set designer. He even produced the ‘BSL paintings’ that appear at the start and the end of the film. The film also incorporates photographs of Gary at different stages of his life, supplied and digitally scanned by Gary.
Alex said “The message of the film and the song is that barriers can be broken down by using language to communicate with one another and learn about different cultures. This opens up new worlds and wider opportunities for everyone”.
The submission to show the film at Deaffest was accepted and since then Alex and Gary have had their film screened at Deaf festivals in Hong Kong, Seattle and Toronto. Alex said “we often joke that our film has a more exciting life than us!”
Watch the film Two Worlds, which includes the documentary interview with Gary and the song at this link