Long ago (in the 90s) I fell in love with a video game called Out of This World. The game’s protagonist was a scientist, transported to an alien planet where he could understand neither the language nor the motives of the natives.
Out of This World was unsettling, because its designer, Éric Chahi, sought to make it art. The game featured a character in isolation, but it also evoked isolation through its game play, using music sparingly—often relying on tones, rather than whole melodies, to make a point about how bad the player’s situation had become. Action sequences were intercut with cinema scenes of dough-headed aliens talking urgently but inscrutably. When the player failed a task—which was often—he returned to the same starting point; usually a prison of some kind, from which he had to escape all over again.
Talk to men and women of my vintage about Out of This World and they’ll tell you it was fun. But what they’ll really want to talk to you about is how it made them feel.
One artwork suggests another. I thought of Out of This World many times while watching La Voz de Los Silenciados (The Voice of the Voiceless), a contemporary silent film by Maximón Monihan, an American director with a background in skateboarding and skateboarding films. Here again we are presented with a protagonist plucked from her own environment and placed in a new one both hostile and difficult to understand. Again we have a narrative broken down into a series of quests, bookended by sameness, repetition. And again there is an undertone of horror. But while the game’s hero was lost among aliens, in this case, our hero is lost among her fellow humans. She is displaced not just geographically, but linguistically. Because she is deaf.
Olga (Janeva Adena Calderón Zentz) is a Central American teenager from, it seems, a loving family. At the start of the film we see her parents being visited by a polished couple, selling the promise of special education for Olga: a school for the deaf in America. Olga’s parents are duped, and the girl is effectively sold into slavery on the streets of New York City. Not as a prostitute, though. She becomes one of those hearing-impaired peddlers who place a note on your coffee shop table, or next to you on the subway, informing you that they are deaf and asking for a donation. Olga’s profits are absorbed by the cartel to whom she’s been sold. If she returns to the home short, they zap her with a stun gun. If she tries to escape, they’ll kill her parents.
None of this is upbeat. But while the film is disturbing throughout, it is not merely, or even mostly, a drama. The Voice of the Voiceless is an avant-garde film, with the same strengths and weaknesses such films tend to have. It is intriguing in concept and execution, but, as a consequence of that, it can leave us emotionally detached from its main character.
Monihan’s protagonist is one for whom sound exists only in the imagination (we don’t know if Olga was born deaf) or through its physical manifestation as vibration. The soundtrack to the film is, like Out of This World’s, an ominous, intermittent one—often not melody at all, but just repetitive, muffled thumps and whooshes that a hearing-impaired person might hear, or think she hears, or simply feel. The effect on the viewer is restrictive—we are placed more firmly inside this character’s head than most. We’re almost trapped there.
Yet I didn’t feel so connected to Olga herself. Yes I rooted for her—you could hardly do otherwise. But the film’s ongoing visual and aural experiments made her feel more like of a participant in those experiments than a fully realized young woman. She worked for the moments, rather than the moments working for her.
Any silent film made today is experimental on some level, because to make one now is to deliberately refuse some tool of expression made readily available. This refusal will be so obvious that it must have a point. You can’t help but ponder it. But maybe you can ponder it too much.
I kept wondering why the film was in black and white. Was this an homage to past forms? Or was it, more likely, a feature-length counterweight to one remarkable dream sequence, in which Olga is placed back in her tropic homeland, awash in full colour? Visually, we achieve verisimilitude here; but not aurally: the trees and fruits in this sequence, and even the girl herself, squawk and shriek in a distorted mimicry of urban sounds. This sequence is fascinating and memorable and I applaud it, but does it saying anything more about Olga’s geographic, physical and psychological isolation? She is necessary for this sequence, and it is cool to see, but it does nothing for Olga.
You may feel differently.
Zentz has apparently been called the “Guatemalan Shelley Duval”—a comparison both stylistically and anatomically apt. Like almost everyone else in the main cast, she is a non-actor, yet a well established artist in other areas. I don’t know if Monihan’s choice to use non-actors adds any dimensions to The Voice of the Voiceless, but these women and men certainly have presence, and perhaps this is due in part to their own artistic achievements. They know what grabs attention. They know what works. And in Zentz’s case, that often means appearing before the camera in her wan glory, and letting it gobble her up.
I told you what happened when you died in Out of This World: You returned to your prison, destined to repeat your task in hopes of a better result. Likewise, we see Olga tossed from her bed each morning in scenes that seem identical, sent on her way to make money for someone else. That, at least, is something we can all relate to. Like Olga, we all have the choice to adapt to our circumstances or try to escape them.
You know what? I’d like to see more modern silents like The Voice of the Voiceless. But I’d like to hear them even more. Good on these artists for taking up the challenge.
Where to see La Voz de Los Silenciados: La Voz de Los Silenciados screens this Friday, June 13th, at Bloor Hot Docs Theatre in Toronto. The screening is part of this year’s North by Northeast (NXNE) arts festival.
Read more about the film, and its cast and crew.