Justin Edgar, a well-established British filmmaker and advocate for disabled people, has pushed the boundaries for accessibility films with “The Letter,” a drama shedding light on a lesser known deaf community in Germany during the WW2.
Now in post, “The Letter” was directed by Edgar, who is hard of hearing, with an entire cast and crew of deaf artists.
Written by deaf writer Julian Peedle-Calloo, “The Letter” follows the struggle of deaf people who fought back against Nazis’ oppression during the war. It tells the story of a deaf regiment of stormtroopers and charts the rise of the Nazi-ruled social org for deaf people (Reich Union of the Deaf of Germany).
The 30-minute film is based on true events and boasts fictionalized characters. “Deaf people like the ones in ‘The Letter’ were really at the forefront of the Nazi euthanasia machine,” he said, adding that “Nazis were so ruthlessly efficient at exterminating deaf and disabled people that a lot of stories were lost.”
Polly Jerrold, a casting director who specializes in diverse casting and in particular deaf, disabled and neuro-divergent actors, played a key role in assembling the cast and was able to tap into “great deaf filmmaking community” in Britain, said Edgar, who advises Channel 4 on their disability policy, as well as the BBC . He pointed out that a “large amount of deaf programming is now being produced in the U.K.”
“The Letter” was commissioned by the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust (BSLBT) which is aimed at a deaf and hearing audience and will be released on Together TV, as well as being streamed on Sky Go, NOW and the BSLBT’s own website and app, BSL Zone.
Edgar says that there’s been films with deaf people before but this one stands out because of the “scale of the production.” “We were shooting in Germany, it’s period, it’s set during the Nazi era in 1933 and Hitler’s Germany,” Edgar says. “I just don’t think there’s been a deaf program on this scale before.”
While he acknowledges that “CODA,” the 2021 best picture winner, made some headway in terms of featuring “deaf talent in front of the camera” (deaf actor Troy Kotsur won an Oscar), Edgar says “it was made by a non-deaf director.”
He says “The Letter” is going a step further than “CODA.” “Usually, we need to make sets accessible for the one deaf actor and crew member, but on ‘The Letter,’ it was the other way around, we needed interpreters for hearing people,” he said.
“The next barrier to break down is to have more deaf people behind the camera through accessible set,” said Edgar, who cited James Caverly, the actor Netflix’s “Only Murders in the Building” and Rose Ayling-Ellis, who stars as “EastEnders,” as inspirations. “Rose just won ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ which was watched by 20 million people in the U.K. so it’s a huge amount of awareness of deaf culture which there wasn’t before,” Edgar said.
A new generation of actors, including U.K. actor Ruth Madeley who stars “Doctor Who,” have “really broken down boundaries for disabled actors,” said Edgar, who worked with Madeley on his award-winning short film “Versimilitude” which was bought by BBC2.. “There’s so many people coming through now who are so good, and lots more people are identifying as disabled as well.”
Before these changes happened, some actors “wouldn’t be comfortable with declaring that they had a disability or disclosing it but now they are and that’s really key,” he said.
Edgar recently penned and directed the pilot for “Kirkmoore,” a coming-of-age comedy series commissioned by Fudge Park/BBC. Set in a residential college for young disabled students, the series is currently available on BBC iPlayer.
Aside from advising Channel 4, Edgar also sits on the disability roundtable for the BFI which advocates for better representation of disabled people behind the camera.
Edgar’s past credits include “Special People,” a comedy about a filmmaker teaching film to young disabled people, and “We Are the Freaks,” which is set in November 1990, against the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s resignation. Both movies played at Edinburgh Film Festival. Edgar is repped by Casarotto Ramsay.
Justin Edgar at Helsinki film festival 2017 (photo by Pirita Särmä):