Jesus film entirely in sign language is historic first for Deaf community

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa (BP) – When Joseph Josselyn of “Jesus: A Deaf Missions Film” lost his hearing as a toddler, life became “a little painful at times” as he grew, accepted Jesus and worshiped God in the hearing world.

As the only Deaf member of his family, and despite his parents’ best efforts, only at Gallaudet University was he exposed fully to the Deaf culture and began to grow in his walk with Jesus, Josselyn told Baptist Press (BP) through the use of an interpreter.

“A lot of Deaf people don’t know Jesus as well,” he said, “and that’s a big issue … that need for them to meet, know and follow Jesus. And that’s been a big role of Deaf Missions, is to create media and resources to help get the awareness out there of Jesus.”

Communicating with the Deaf community in its heart language is a key concept of Jesus: A Deaf Missions Film portraying the story of Jesus entirely in American Sign Language (ASL), billed by Deaf Missions as the first-ever ASL adaptation for the silver screen.

The film removes all barriers Deaf people face when viewing spoken-language films with subtitles, a standard that Josselyn says makes it difficult for Deaf viewers to experience the emotions critical to any given story.

“Having an experience where Jesus is Deaf, is signing, and a Deaf cast where they’re all signing, so they could see all the emotion, they could see what was happening,” is what Josselyn sees as critical to the production. “There wasn’t anything they had to detach from. There were no barriers. They didn’t have to go through an interpreter … or a second party to get that information. To me, that’s why this is so important.”

Showings are scheduled in at least 275 theaters in the U.S. June 20 and 23. Deaf Missions recommends early ticket purchases and group attendance to encourage theaters to expand the schedule.

Deaf Missions made the film primarily for Deaf audiences, but included elements such as English subtitles and a soundtrack to accommodate a hearing audience. Also, Deaf people can experience music by feeling the bass.

“We felt it would be beneficial for hearing people to come and partake and to view the movie as well,” Josselyn said, “because most Deaf have children and parents. Or you think of relatives or siblings of the Deaf, or friends of the Deaf, so that they have access to the movie as well. Just as hearing folks give me access to their films, then we wanted to do the same thing for hearing folks.”

Josselyn, who produces and directs the film along with Deaf producer Michael Davis of GUM Vision Studio, faced unique challenges in the production, spanning the mundane of securing a boat for the scene of Jesus walking on water, to the creative element of portraying Jesus’ last words on the cross.

“Jesus is on the cross where He says certain things which I want people to watch, to see. How do we get Jesus to say those words while He was on the cross?” Josselyn shared, declining to reveal his solution. “That is part of the mystery of it all, is how did that scene take place. Thank God for His provision, for working all the details out.”

Deaf Missions, a ministry to Deaf people in more than 100 countries encompassing more than 60 denominations, hopes the film will draw unbelievers to Jesus and help believers learn more of Jesus and grow in faith.

“It’s been a true joy to see people’s response to the film,” Josselyn said, referencing recent red-carpet events where the film was shown. “The people watching were moved to tears. They were sitting speechless, deep in thought. And that is what has been the biggest encouragement for me.

“For folks to see the movie in their heart language has been the greatest reward.”

Tickets are available here.

(EDITOR’S NOTE – Diana Chandler is Baptist Press’ senior writer.)

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