The material details of the musical instrument larcenies that took place across high schools in south Los Angeles between 2011 and 2013 don’t transpire in filmmaker Alison O’Daniel’s audaciously experimental “The Tuba Thieves.” There’s no thorough investigation into who committed the thefts and why. Instead, she takes a more symbolic approach to look at how the events altered the sonic landscape of the players’ lives and of the places they inhabit. It wouldn’t be a stretch to describe it as an audiovisual anthropological study.
If there’s an actual protagonist in this formally adventurous effort, it’s the synesthetic dance between images and sound (or silence) and how these interactions inform our perception of the world, depending on whether you are a hearing person, someone hard-of-hearing or a deaf individual. These parallel experiences converge in a sensorial examination of Los Angeles built from a lyrically edited barrage of moments. O’Daniel intermingles seemingly spontaneous instances with more obviously fictionalized scenes for dramatic effect.
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Take for example how the opening symphony of urban noises and sights paints the picture of a chaotic metropolis in perpetual disarray. But for the two deaf hikers overlooking the skyline from a hilltop, who exist in a reality where some of that stimuli don’t directly affect their engagement with the city, their focus is on a raging fire nearby. This doesn’t mean sound is entirely absent from their lives, but that they have a distinct relationship to it.
O’Daniel uses fiction to illustrate this point via Nyke (played by Nyeisha “Nyke” Prince), a pregnant deaf Black woman who works at a sound recording studio and has an affinity for playing drums. In conversations with her father (played by Warren “Wawa” Snipe) she speaks of fears that hearing people may overlook: failing to hear a fire alarm. Meanwhile, her partner, who goes by Nature Boy (played by deaf actor Russell Harvard), reads a book on how fungi reproduce in silence, an entire universe happening without our awareness.
That notion of life that happens unbeknownst to most, unseen and unheard, appears critical to O’Daniel’s point of view here and to the areas and people of L.A. she and her trio of cinematographers (Derek Howard, Judy Phu and Meena Singh) filmed. Have you ever considered how many stories are drowned out by the roaring sound of a plane taking off at LAX or a thunderous leaf blower? Muffled arguments between couples, disrupted activities, voices silenced by noise pollution. And yet, communication for those who know American Sign Language (ASL) isn’t hindered.
As part of that exploration of the metaphorical silencing of certain communities, and how they find their own sound, the director includes an interview with the Mexican American musical duo Voces del Rancho, who grew up in the south L.A. city of Bell, the location of one of the high schools that lost tubas. The musicians speak on how prominent corrido singer Chalino Sanchez made his name selling tapes of his music in the 1990s directly to his audience in Latino community. Blaring from cars, his tracks permeated the streets, becoming part of the local soundtrack — and yet to the white mainstream, he remains mostly unknown.
Fitting for a docudrama about sound’s impact, there’s a vivid rhythm to “The Tuba Thieves” crafted by O’Daniel and her co-editor Zack Khalil. They piece together the vast assortment of ideas in a way that, while never typically linear, conveys a spiritual cohesiveness.
One propulsive cut takes us from a deaf man skating into a flying airplane seen from below and back to his skateboard clashing with empty beer bottles. Every setup feels precisely curated to maximize the impact of the clash between what we see and what we hear. Occasionally, the filmmakers intercut beautiful black-and-white passages of visual poetry expressed in ASL by artist Christine Sun Kim as transitions.
Also swirling in this overflowing and at times overwhelming intellectual whirlwind, there are reenactments of the final show at the Deaf Club in San Francisco and of a chat with the organizers of a free concert Prince held at Deaf University Gallaudet during his “Purple Rain” tour. Both asides further drive home that deafness doesn’t equate an existence devoid of musical appreciation.
O’Daniel, who is partially deaf herself and wears hearing aids, later re-creates a John Cage concert where he performed the piece “4’33″” (in which no instruments are played for more than four minutes). We follow a frustrated audience member who leaves the venue to walk into the forest where other sounds await him. And amid all of that, there are clips from the daily life of Geovanny Marroquin, one of the young people left tuba-less after the mysterious thefts.
A cinematic experience that invites the viewers’ full sensorial engagement, “The Tuba Thieves” also challenges our capacity for visual observation. Shots of the LED marquee signs outside the high schools, which at first glance seem like mere establishing shots, contain intense existential questions or statements.
Similarly, O’Daniel expands the purpose of open captions beyond a tool for inclusivity, turning them into a narrative device. As one takes in all the elements simultaneously at play in every frame, you might notice the captions use descriptive, almost poetic language or note the decibels of a particular ambience sound, often that of airplanes taking off.
Without the rigidness of a concrete story, O’Daniel is able to command the medium in an invigorating manner. Though it requires that audiences surrender to its unconventional tactics, the reward is the opportunity to rediscover the familiar with a fresh set of eyes and ears.
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