‘Avatar’ Na’vi Sign Language Creator Launches New Film Festival To Amplify The Work Of Deaf Artists In Hollywood | GirlTalkHQ

According to the National Deaf Center, 3.6% of the U.S. population, or 11 million people, are Deaf or have significant hearing difficulty. Worldwide, there are 466 million people with disabling hearing loss (World Health Organization), 70 million of whom use one or more of 200+ Sign Languages (World Federation of the Deaf).

A first-of-its-kind study released in 2022 looking at Deaf Representation in Hollywood found that 63% of Deaf consumers say Hollywood perpetuates negative stereotypes about the Deaf community, and 82% believe the entertainment industry needs to offer more career support for Deaf Professionals. The film industry clearly has a long way to go and it must do better to ensure these statistics change, in order to be more inclusive and accessible.

Systemic change often begins with an individual willing to forge a new path to create the kind of opportunities that need to be seen. One such individual is award-winning actor-director-producer and activist CJ Jones, whose work you may recognize in some of the biggest blockbuster movies and TV shows over the past few years. CJ is the founder of SignWorld Studios, whose mission it is to create innovative and entertaining Sign Language programming accessible to viewers across the demographic spectrum and around the world. CJ is one of seven children born to Deaf parents. He lost his hearing at the age of 7 due to spinal meningitis.

CJ launched Sign World Studios in 2020 after recognizing the need to reach an audience that was being largely ignored by mainstream media, knowing he occupied a unique space in entertainment where he could elevate the work of other deaf performers. CJ is best known for his work creating the Na’vi Sign Language (NSL) for James Cameron’s ‘Avatar: Way of the Water’, his role in the hit film ‘Baby Driver’, and as the ASL Director for HBO’s popular series ‘The Last of Us’, among other major productions.

His next big production will be the inaugural SignLight International Film Festival (SIFF), where, for the first time ever, seasoned Deaf filmmakers and up-and-coming Deaf creatives from around the world will showcase their work in the heart of the entertainment industry, at a time when studios are seeking more diverse talent and authentic storytelling. The festival will run from April 16-20 in Hollywood.

SIFF offers a panoply of best practices and models of success to the industry and Deaf community alike, easing the way for studios and filmmakers to fulfill their visions of inclusion and access, a business imperative in today’s industry. Aligning with Jones to galvanize Hollywood through the star-studded festival are such luminaries as Troy Kotsur, Deanne Bray, Marlee Matlin, Millicent Simmonds, Rosie O’Donnell, Andreas Deja, Shoshanna Stern, Nyle DiMarco, Shaylee Mansfield, Keivonn Woodard, Craig Mazin and more. The event will also feature a performance by American Sign Language (ASL) hip hop star Matt Maxey aka Deafinitely Dope.

“Too often, hearing people misappropriate the stories and roles of people who are Deaf, only to seek out their assistance to help them create a facsimile of their lives. Authentic representation requires authentic participation behind as well as in front of the camera. Our festival offers the industry a ‘how-to manual’ that illustrates models of successful Deaf/hearing creative collaborations, best practices, innovative Deaf/hearing communications solutions and a contact roster of the best Deaf talent in the world,” said CJ about the festival in a press release.

SIFF, which has drawn attendees from around the world and will be convened bi-annually, received 195 submissions from 43 countries from which 62 Deaf filmmaker/actor nominations and 32 films were selected in 13 competitive categories.

We had the chance to catch up with CJ as he prepared for the launch of SIFF, learning more about his work on some of the biggest movies and TV shows in the world, the importance of advocacy behind the scenes, and what decision-makers, leaders and executives can do better to ensure accessibility is a foundational value in the entertainment they create.

Congrats on the upcoming launch of the inaugural SignLight International Film Festival! Can you tell us about how the idea for the festival came about and what it took to get the idea off the ground?

There are a few Deaf film festivals around the country but not in Hollywood. I have decided to launch SIFF in Hollywood for the first time to make an impact where the film industry meets Deaf filmmakers to learn about their talent and how to work together on creative development. I want the film industry to know that we exist. I am proud that my vision come true because the industry—HBO, NBCUniversal, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Nickelodeon, The Jim Henson Company, The Writers Guild and more—have come together to create a bridge between the Hollywood film industry and Deaf filmmakers to manifest and create opportunities.

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