For non-d/deaf audience members, we often take the presence of sound for granted. It is not until it is stripped away that we find our lives disoriented by its presence (or lack thereof). Yet as d/deaf and hard-of-hearing artists have grown their representation in the film and television world, an inclusive cinematic approach has spawned. In the case of The Tuba Thieves, a wholly unique experience finds its way to the big screen. Director Alison O’Daniel creates an experience unlike any in recent memory while exploring experimental uses of sound and communication.
On its face, The Tuba Thieves explores Los Angeles between 2011 and 2013, when dozens of Tubas were stolen from local schools. However, O’Daniel quickly disorients the audience with unique images and visuals. The “recreations” and narrative sequences depict a series of images that build on each other. We may go minutes between the connections and visuals, but we see the expansive world of loosely shared stories.
From the jump, audiences may believe their sound is not working. However, O’Daniel continually plays with the medium as we watch strings of montage. We jump through time and space, absorbing unique images against a dampened soundscape. We watch concert pianists perform in Woodstock during the 1950s, punk rock bands in a 1970’s d/deaf club, and high school marching bands take the field in modern LA. These sequences feature some of the most unique sound design in American filmmaking. The construction of this soundscape is an incredible achievement for the medium.
The actual framing and blocking allow for brilliant cinematography to shine through. The three cinematographer team, featuring Derek Howard, Judy Phu, and Meena Singh, expertly place their cameras. Some sequences are clearly choreographed, as this “documentary” features several narrative sequences, but that does not make them any less effective.
The vast majority of the individuals who appear in The Tuba Thieves are hard-of-hearing individuals. O’Daniel captures the use of ASL throughout the world. She also dampens the dialogue, providing subtitles for the discussions that occur. Wisely, she obscures the discussions that do not allow for subtitles, and as a result, we welcome the appearance of signers because we learn more in their time on screen than at any other moment. The captions are also built into the film’s design, and in one very cool instance, an upside-down camera includes inverted captions. It’s stylistic flourishes like this one that makes The Tuba Thieves so special.
The reason The Tuba Thieves works is O’Daniel’s vision. Either you are into what she is crafting early, or the film may not be for you. She clearly expressed her wants and desires to the crew because works like The Tuba Thieves require full buy-in from every department on a film. There may not be a film at Sundance in 2023 that requires you to submit to the director’s vision. However, if you do, the experience is rewarding in ways few films ever achieve.