As filmmaker Doug Roland strolled down the street in the crisp night air with the bustling city of New York sprawled out around him, he saw a man standing on the side of the road – a man who would change his life.
In the man’s hands was a sign explaining that he was deaf-blind and needed help finding a bus stop, and in that moment Roland realized, in all his experiences of busy New York life, he had never met someone who was deaf-blind.
“Instinctively, I tried to speak to him, and that didn’t work, and I tried to gesticulate and that didn’t work, and I asked, ‘How am I going to communicate with this person?’” Roland said. “So by a stroke of intuition I grabbed his palm and started writing, one letter at a time.”
The man, named Artemio, wrote back through a notepad, and their conversation left an impact on Roland long after the two men parted ways that night. For Roland, that encounter transformed into a vision to retell their meeting through a short film, a film that eight years later has finally come to fruition, in partnership with the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults.
Traveling throughout the U.S. screening his new film “Feeling Through,” Roland and the HKNC came to the Historic Franklin Theater Thursday to share his retelling of Roland and Artemio’s story with the Tennessee and Kentucky deaf-blind community.
Celebrating Helen Keller’s birthday with their fourth screening since the film’s release, Roland and HKNC showed the short film about a young man’s encounter with a deaf-blind man named Artie, as well as a documentary on the making of the film. Franklin Mayor Dr. Ken Moore helped kick off the event, sharing his appreciation for the work HKNC is doing to raise awareness for deaf-blindness.
For HKNC southeast regional representative Marilyn Trader, preparing for an event like Thursday’s requires considering a wide variety of potential accessibility needs in advance.
“We’ve been planning these screenings for almost a year now,” she said. “There’s a lot of accessibility [challenges], because our deaf-blind community is so diverse. You can have somebody who just lost their hearing from something like an accident to somebody who has a congenital hearing/vision loss. So when you have such a diverse population like that, you don’t know who’s going to show up, so you have to be prepared for that.”
With accessibility a central part of the panel discussion after the screening, Roland, Trader and other leaders in the Tennessee deaf-blind community like Margie DeMars came on stage to discuss the film and the challenges HKNC helps people face.
For members of the deaf-blind community like DeMars, who works as the secretary of the Tennessee Association of the Deaf-Blind, “Feeling Through” depicts their struggles in a way not often told by films.
“It was so wonderful,” DeMars said. “It really brought home all the difficulties a deaf-blind person has during their life.”
But Roland’s film is not just unique in its story. “Feeling Through” is the first movie to cast a deaf-blind actor, with former HKNC student Robert Tarango playing the part of Artie.
Roland knew from the film’s inception that he wanted to cast a deaf-blind actor. Tarango was born deaf, but he still grew up dreaming of becoming an actor. When he lost his vision to Usher syndrome in his 30s, he thought he would never have the chance to fulfill his dream, but Roland knew from their first meeting that Tarango was the man for the role.
“Once I actually saw the finished product, I was like, ‘Wow, this is real. I’ve made it, I really am an actor,’” Tarango said through an interpreter. “Being an actor – yes, I’m deaf-blind – but I’m the same as any other actor. Deaf-blind people can do it.”
Through the panel discussions and the story, Roland hopes the screenings will provide the resources and awareness people unfamiliar with deaf-blindness need to get involved in the community.
“It’s first and foremost an event to bring people in through the power of storytelling and entertainment, and by extension bringing awareness and information about the deaf-blind community, hopefully to people who have never had the opportunity to see any representation of the deaf-blind community or interacted with the deaf-blind community,” Roland said.
After Roland and Artemio met on the street eight years ago, they lost contact. But as he worked on the early stages of “Feeling Through,” Roland began searching for the man who inspired his work.
When they finally found each other after a dedicated search by HKNC, it summed up the heart of his entire project.
“It [the screenings] redefines who I am as a filmmaker going forward,” Roland said. “This whole project has been about human connection. It includes a deaf-blind character played by a deaf-blind actor, but it’s not just about deaf-blindness. It’s about human connection – it’s about two people from different places and circumstances connecting despite their differences.”
Contact Marilyn Trader at email@example.com for more information on the HKNC and how to get involved.