Camp gives deaf teenagers a chance to learn from filmmaking pros

William Holt
Campers with filmmaker Wayne Betts, Jr. at Camp Mark Seven's first Deaf Film Camp in Old Forge, NY. (Courtesy of Stacy Marie Lawrence)
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Deaf Film Camp

OLD FORGE, N.Y. — Filmmaking, an art form typically rich in both images and sound, might not seem like a natural fit for a group of deaf teenagers still adapting to the challenges of living in the hearing world.

But over the past two weeks, 21 deaf teens were able to immerse themselves in a filmmaking program at an upstate New York retreat dedicated to providing meaningful summer experiences to deaf children. And while the campers took part in traditional summer camp activities like canoeing and hiking, they also received a rigorous education in making movies from some of the industry’s leading deaf filmmakers.

Nestled on a pristine lakefront in the Adirondacks, Camp Mark Seven was founded more than 30 years ago by a deaf Catholic priest, Father Thomas Coughlin, to help deaf kids develop life skills through character-building outdoor activities. This year, Stacy Marie Lawrence, an avid proponent of deaf filmmaking, persuaded the ever-evolving rustic retreat to launch its first Deaf Film Camp.

“We wanted to make sure these kids have the opportunity that we didn’t have when we were younger,” Lawrence, who is deaf, said in an interview. “I never had an interpreter when I was young, and it was very frustrating because I wanted to make films.”

As the director of the film camp, Lawrence — who also runs the Deaf Rochester Film Festival in upstate New York — has become something of a pioneer, trying to marry the essence of the camp’s customs and history with the novel experience of a rigorous film program.

“There are a lot of traditions that we really try to preserve and respect, but this is a film camp, which is something new for us,” Lawrence said of the new venture. “It’s been very interesting trying to find a balance between nature and technology.”

Camp Mark Seven has long sought to provide a unique experience for its campers, many of whom attend mainstream schools where they are the only deaf students. Campers largely communicate with each other in sign language, and the hearing are in the minority.

This summer, the camp recruited three deaf filmmakers — screenwriter Kalen Feeney, filmmaker Wayne Betts Jr. and animator Braam Jordaan — to guide campers through every aspect of the process, from shooting and acting to writing and directing.

The three filmmakers have long dealt with the challenges of being deaf and its impact on their career and have managed to transform those seeming limitations into creative opportunities.

For Jordaan, this has meant a return to the very fundamentals of early film: stories told purely through visuals, requiring neither sound nor subtitles to convey a strong narrative. Many of his short animations have been featured in commercials for high-profile clients like BMW and American Eagle and can be viewed on his personal website.

But while Jordaan has found an audience for his work that reaches far beyond the deaf community, he acknowledged that mainstream films can be inaccessible for deaf viewers who often depend on captions to follow a story.

As a result, hard-of-hearing filmmakers and performers have started making projects that capture the musicality of both the hearing and the deaf worlds, coupling sound and song with the elegance of sign language.

Just recently, Betts produced a sign language interpretation of the Gotye hit song “Somebody I Used to Know” that has gotten more than 200,000 views and has been seen in more than 40 countries.

“I could see how people reacted to music on a different level,” said Betts. “Now I’m diving into how you can make music a visual experience.”

That visual experience is what makes filmmaking appealing to so many deaf viewers, Betts said, adding that movies were always a favorite pastime for his family.

“It was a visual escape for me,” he said.

When the Deaf Film Camp was launched on July 21, many campers arrived with only a minimum of technical knowledge; the only requirement was a passion for the subject and a willingness to learn.

“Almost all of them had no experience in film,” said Betts. “But I gave them a camera, and it’s like they’ve been shooting their whole lives.”

Added Jordaan: “They’re not only learning from us; they’re learning from each other. To see them given the opportunity and grab the core essence of filmmaking — this is where it happens.”

For many campers, that learning process will continue after camp concludes.

“I’m discovering a lot of software that I can now use at home,” said Marshall Hurst, 13. “My mother’s 50th birthday is coming up, and I’m going to make a movie about her life.”

The film program was officially open to campers between the ages of 13 and 16, but Camp Mark Seven made an exception for 12-year-old Tyler Naeyaert, a film fanatic with a passion for making creative shorts. He was thrilled to work with Jordaan, a personal hero, at the camp.

Like Marshall, Tyler said he’s eager to practice the new skills he developed over the summer.

“I have a GoPro at home,” said Tyler, referring to the wearable cameras that campers brought with them on hikes and other outdoor activities. “I’m excited to try it out now that I know how to use it.”

At the end of camp, participants will screen their work to family and friends at a nearby movie theater in Old Forge. Their final project will be a music video set to the One Republic song “Feel Again.”

“We want to make sure Camp Mark Seven is the star of the video,” said Betts. “The campground — this building — is the main character.”

For these young filmmaking hopefuls, the video will serve as a reminder of a unique summer experience.

“It’s been a wonderful opportunity for these kids to get together,” said Lawrence, whose daughter was a camper at Camp Mark Seven for five years. “They all call this place home. They feel comfortable, and they can be themselves here.”