Tuesday 17 October 2023

On demand: "Name Me Lawand"

The filmmaker Edward Lovelace is making communication his primary subject. Back in 2014, Lovelace signed off on
The Possibilities Are Endless, an equal parts moving and stirring overview of the singer-songwriter Edwyn Collins' efforts to recover from the stroke that robbed him of speech. The documentarist has spent the intervening years working on Name Me Lawand, a longform study of a boy similarly struggling to put two words together. In this case, this is partly a matter of geographic displacement: pre-teen Lawand is the son of Kurdish migrants who've ended up in Derbyshire, of all places. Partly, it's an internal battle: Lawand is deaf, which means he has no immediate way of knowing how his hosts' brave new words sound. From the off, Lovelace is determined that we should meet his subject square on; there's no condescension or special pleading. Over the opening credits, we hear Lawand's stuttering attempts to speak for himself, a choice that essentially appoints a narrator who has neither the tongue nor the vocabulary to articulate all that he's seen and been through. As an on-camera presence, Lawand is initially somewhat reticent, hiding out in school corridors while his louder classmates make merry; it's both charming and somewhat miraculous when a teacher gets him to blurt out the name of his adoptive hometown. Still, it's slow progress: Lawand visibly responds best to the sort of focused, one-on-one teaching that isn't always possible in the British education system of the 21st century. Your heart will sink a little when, by one means or another, all this kid has to convey to Lovelace's camera is a five-word bulletin: "I choose not to speak."

Yet rest easy: if Name Me Lawand isn't quite the feelgood story of the year, it's not too far off. Over these ninety minutes, Lawand gains a whole new language, friends, allies, parents to whom he can talk, and abundant self-confidence. It's just we're aware that outcome couldn't always have been certain over the long years of filming, especially in a newly hostile environment for migrants. (One of the few benefits of deafness is that you don't have to hear the words falling from the lips of May, Braverman, Shapps et al.; still, Lawand has much to fear from the official government communications landing on the welcome mat.) Furthermore, Lovelace's immersive formal treatment muddies the dramatic waters in interesting ways; his film is to deafness what Black Sun and Notes on Blindness were to visual impairment, and what The Reason I Jump was to autism. Here is a film that fully understands the refocusing power of silence in a medium that now places such deafening emphasis on sound; one that also spots in passing the great eloquence of hands that talk. (A framing quirk: faces bisected at the top of the frame, so as to allow more room for dextrously signing fingers.) There are some especially magical classroom scenes, where under the tutelage of patient teacher Sophie Stone - at once vocal coach, playmate and psychotherapist; no pay rise could do her justice - this troubled student begins to connect with the landscape he finds himself in. Throughout, Lovelace does all he can to get his camera out of his subjects' way, the better to allow us to read faces, body language, thoughts, emotions. It's a model of proactive documentary practice, obliging us to intuit and empathise at every stage, and thereby doing away with the hierarchy of information to which more conventional non-fiction clings - that deadening emphasis on the tell part of show-and-tell. (I've not seen a film that more forcefully impresses on its viewers what sign language means to its users - why it's forever more than just a cool thing to learn.) Crucially, director, audience and subject proceed through this story together, on as level a playing field as an able-bodied filmmaker can provide for a mostly able-bodied audience. We spy this family have problems long before the Home Office start sniffing around; if your heart doesn't go out to them - if, for all Lawand and Lovelace's efforts, you fail to connect with the tousle-haired kid straining to express himself at a formative moment - then there might still be a slot for you in the present Cabinet.

Name Me Lawand is available to rent via Prime Video and the BFI Player.

No comments:

Post a Comment