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Planet of Snail & Lost and Sound

“Very often in life, when we lose something, we gain something,” says an academic in the documentary Lost and Sound, and it’s a quote that resonates not only throughout this particular film but also thoughout another prominent documentary in this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, writes film critic Paul Martinovic.

Both films are examinations of sensory perception and, specifically, how it relates to the human condition – how the intellectual and spiritual aspects of individual personalities are subsequently changed when their bodies are deprived of the full complement of sensory apparatus that the majority of us take for granted.

While the films do not shy away from the fact that not having access to all of your senses is an extremely difficult and traumatic thing for anyone have to deal with for, both documentaries seem to ultimately find a reassuring amount of truth in the above quote. It’s already fairly well-regarded that losing one sense will result in an instinctive refinement of the others, and the films agree that that this idea is biologically accurate to at least some degree. But both films also suggest that losing a sense allows people to access philosophical and spiritual insights that would otherwise be unavailable if they were supposedly ‘normal’.

Lost in Sound, from UK film-maker Lindsey Dryden (who is herself partially deaf) examines a small group of deaf and partially deaf people and their relationship with music. All of the subjects have fascinating stories to tell: there’s Nick, the avid record collector and ex-music journo who woke up one morning to discover he had lost all hearing in one ear; Emily, deaf since birth, who nevertheless is studying to be a dancer at one of the UK’s most prestigious dance schools; and Holly, the daughter of two musicians, who uses cochlear implants to simulate hearing after going deaf in her early stages of development. [Article continues below]

Lost and Sound is a lot more interested in biology and the inner workings of the brain than Planet of Snail, but the long passages on neuroscience are articulated simply and precisely and are never less than riveting. At one point we see a detailed brain scan of Nick as he listens to music – it shows that other sections of the brain are all active attempting to help out the segment of the brain that has been rendered less effective by his hearing loss. “Music is a gymnasium for the mind”, one expert says at on point, claiming its intricate patterns and internal logic provide the brain with a workout that few other activites can offer. It’s for this reason, it’s suggested, that the brain will always attempt to make sense of and even engineer its own music, even if the physical hearing apparatus is damaged or unavailable.

While it often takes an academic view there are still some very affecting personal moments in Lost and Sound, including a scene where Holly is taught piano by her father. Out of context, he seems like the stereotypical pushy and overbearing father, especially as her diction is so outstanding that to the uninitiated it would be impossible to tell that she is hard of hearing. But earlier in the film we see the parents describe the intense fear they share that Holly will never be able to experience and appreciate music, something that both of them care about enough to have dedicated their lives to – it’s possibly even what brought them together in the first place. With this knowledge, Holly’s dad’s insistence on her taking her time to feel out the music takes on a whole new dimension.

Seung-Jun Yi’s Planet of Snail dispenses with commentary from experts or academics altogether, and places us directly into the world of Young Chan and Soon-Ho, an extraordinary couple from South Korea. Young-Chan has been both deaf and blind since childhood, and Soon-Ho suffers from a rare spinal disorder that means she stands at less than half the size of the six-foot-plus Young-Chan.

Their relationship is remarkably co-dependent – best demonstrated by a scene where the two are required to replace a fluorescent lightbulb placed on the ceiling, well out of reach. We see the whole thing play out almost in real time, and we see how difficult their respective disabilities makes even the simplest chore, as well as conversely how well they have learned to communicate with each other in order to overcome these shortcomings. The sense of relief and accomplishment when they finally achieve it is palpable.

Potential viewers should be warned that lot of the sequences in Planet of Snail are like this: quiet, languid, and uneventful and to the point of ponderousness. These lengthy scenes are occasionally trying but almost dreamlike in their understated simplicity – they allow us to see the world if not exactly the way Young-Chan sees it, but as close as we’re going to get on replicating how it feels to actually live his hugely unusual day-to-day life.

Young-Chan, it is revealed, is a writer, with ambitions of writing a book about his experiences one day. In the third act, he writes and directs a play starring a number of his similarly disabled friends, using a special electronic braille keyboard. There’s a mind-boggling scene earlier where he gives direction to an able-bodied actress on her performance of something he’s written, despite not being able to see or hear her. These achievements, which at times feel almost impossible, are made possible by his unique relationship with Soon-Ho. They communicate via a system of taps on Young-Chan’s fingers – it’s through this disarmingly intimate touchingly language that Soon-Ho becomes Young- Chan’s conduit to the world. When they are separated briefly at one point in the film, they both seems lost – Soon-Ho, tellingly, perhaps most of all, despite the fact that she needs much less assistance in everyday life.

Despite the heavy subject matter, there is also humour here. In a touching and hilarious scene, Soon-Ho conspiratorially tells Young-Chan to throw a pine cone at documentarian Seung-Jun – when she relays to him that it hit him in the face, the delighted Soon-Ho collapses in genuine hysterics. It’s a funny, simple, human moment, in a film that is filled with plenty them.

These are two moving, thought-provoking docs that demonstrate formidable and innovative uses of the documentary format to provide a unique insight into the human condition. What’s more, the likeable protagonists and their inspirational stories are presented plainly and avoiding overt sentimentality, which gives both films a quiet power that is likely to stay with you long after the credits have rolled.

Further information on screenings can be found on the Planet of Snail website and the Lost in Sound website.

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Paul is a writer originally from Bristol, now based in London, where he writes for a number of websites with the word ‘geek’ in the title, for reasons that are clear to everyone but him. You can find him on Twitter where he indulges in equal parts amateur philosophy and equal parts ruthless self-promotion. He lives in Hackney with people and no pets. His interests are broadly the same as yours.

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