‘The Tuba Thieves’: Navigating between hearing and silence

By Payton Zagacki

From 2011 to 2013, tubas were stolen from Los Angeles high schools.

This was the event that director Alison O’Daniel based her film “The Tuba Thieves” around. But, as O’Daniel said, “This story isn’t about thieves or missing tubas. Instead, it asks what it means to listen.”

“The film is really about this misconception of deafness being about silence or a silent experience. And it’s really not … like all of us on the entire spectrum of deafness have a huge relationship to visual and tactile information,” said O’Daniel.

The film starts with a series of tuba thefts at Los Angeles high schools before branching out into a series of vignettes. These vignettes follow different members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community through events in their daily lives, often relating to music.

The film utilizes multiple moments of silence and sign language that was not captioned to teach audience members what it is like to be deaf and hard of hearing in a world that relies so heavily on sound. Audiences had to use their other senses to experience a significant portion of the film. To help with this, viewers were given balloons to blow up before the showing so that they could feel sound through vibrations, enabling them to experience sound as the deaf and hard-of-hearing community would.

The use of captions also added to the experience of the film. “[O’Daniel] talks about being so frustrated with captions and that even when they’re there and you can access them, being able to access them open captions versus closed captions and then the technology not always working for accessing closed captions,” said Bright Lights Cinema curator Anna Feder.

“But then she also is so frustrated with things that are omitted, things that are censored, things that are, all this information that she’s sometimes not getting or she is getting it, it’s a flat in a way.”

O’Daniel worked with professional captioners, as well as members of the deaf community, to tell a story of sound in the captions.

“Rather than add music to images, I added the images to the sound,” said O’Daniel. This unique approach resulted in descriptive captions that added to the beauty of the images they described.

The planned post-screening talk with the director did suffer from technical issues, resulting in an early ending to the discussion. Feder said the film would hopefully be shown again sometime in the future, maybe even with the director in person to answer questions from the audience.

The next Bright Lights Cinema series film is “Kim’s Video,” directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin.

The film will be shown in the Bright Family Screening Room on Nov. 2 at 7 p.m.