Alison O’Daniel’s ‘The Tuba Thieves’ premieres at Sundance

Alison O’Daniel’s ‘The Tuba Thieves’ premieres at Sundance

(Within the voice of Kurt Vonnegut in the beginning of “Slaughterhouse-5”) Pay attention. No, concentrate. You possibly can’t sit again and passively watch this one. This can be a movie you will need to see, hear, learn. And I say “should” for a cause. 

So many movies are praised for being “not like something seen earlier than” that the praise feels empty — I’ll throw it at Alison O’Daniel’s (“Evening Sky”) “The Tuba Thieves” anyway. “The Tuba Thieves” questions what a movie can do greater than any movie I’ve seen at Sundance this yr.

The primary scene exhibits us a leaf blower. Vibrant aqua subtitles learn “[leaf blower]” after which specify the blower’s exact decibel degree. Quickly after, we’re in a room with Nature Boy (Russell Harvard, “There Will Be Blood”), the place he takes a listening to take a look at requiring him to repeat phrases again to a moderator sitting in a separate room on the opposite aspect of a glass panel. Shortly after that, we watch an unidentifiable group of individuals steal tubas at a highschool soccer recreation. The scenes don’t inform a transparent story. There’s not an apparent level of similarity between one and the following.

Intertitles inform us the places of California excessive colleges from which tubas (and later different devices) have been stolen, giving us a stolen instrument rely from every. These notations hint the nonfictional a part of the movie; these robberies actually did happen between 2011 and 2013.

The movie is artistic nonfiction, an oxymoronic-sounding style that on this case entails combining documentary and fiction. The nonfictional half depicts the instrument theft. The fictional scenes heart on Nature Boy’s girlfriend Nyeisha “Nyke” Prince (“Savage/Love”), a pregnant, deaf girl who performs herself and Geovanny Marroquin, debuting as himself, a drum main at one of many excessive colleges whose tubas have been taken.

Different scenes don’t strictly match the class of tuba-related documentary or fictional scene: wildlife digicam footage of mountain lions ingesting from a pool of water, an the other way up freeway shot simpler than any I’ve seen, the place the digicam flies backward via an underpass and round curves with an vitality that pulls the viewer alongside, at the same time as the aim of this scene stays elusive. Whereas these scenes are disconnected and complicated if I attempted to justify their existence as associated to a narrative, they work by drawing the viewer away from that want for clear narrative towards the expertise of the movie as an entire piece of artwork.

I rapidly realized the disparate scenes have been in all probability not going to tie collectively in a standard narrative and questioned why I used to be so compelled by one thing I didn’t know interpret. What was it about? Tales make movies fascinating, and there wasn’t a lot of a narrative.

In her work with movie, sculpture and different media, O’Daniel, who’s deaf, explores sound by combining it with picture and efficiency. “The Tuba Thieves” is akin to an interactive artwork exhibit: The viewers is invited to expertise one thing with a number of senses, let it envelop them for an hour and a half and go away them questioning interpret it. They maintain an overarching thought of its sensibility moderately than an in depth plotline.

The characters and occasions of “The Tuba Thieves” are much less necessary than sound, the underlying topic and narrator. The tales are sure by interactions with sound and its absence. Nyke and Nature Boy have expressive conversations in signal language whereas relative silence surrounds them. The unique leaf blower is adopted later by scenes from the freeway, offering a uninteresting, buzzing soundscape. That is interrupted by purposeful, entertaining sound in numerous musical performances. Throughout a live performance, a household discusses their member of the family in signal language whereas music pulses round them. 

Subtitles often really feel like an afterthought that, on their very own, give solely a blurry thought of occasions. In “The Tuba Thieves,” they do extra — shade coded for spoken or signed dialogue and infrequently written to incorporate a sure cadence. Decibel ranges are famous. When musical devices are performed, the subtitles embrace descriptions of the kind of sound they make — a be aware is “[stretched]” and the areas between the letters in “stretched” are themselves giant, an evocative visible illustration of what typical subtitles would solely trace at. O’Daniel explores sound, however significantly its relationship to movie.

How can language itself inform a narrative? Not all the time the way in which we think about it doing so in movie. When Nature Boy takes the listening to take a look at, he turns into irritable, takes off the headset and switches to signal language, combining all the phrases he was requested to repeat in a narrative instructed dramatically with the motions of his fingers, extending to his arms and entire physique. He offers life to the story with this language. There’s an appreciation for signal language right here that I haven’t seen — an acknowledgement not solely of its existence however of what it supplies each “speaker” and “listener.”

The movie’s title card alone treads the road of the intersection between language and sound, the locations they intersect and diverge. Nyke opens a closet door and we see solely her fingers. They signal the letters comprising “The Tuba Thieves” whereas subtitles inform unfamiliar viewers what she is saying. It’s someplace between a spoken and written title. It accommodates which means but in addition motion, goal interpretation and the person intonation of Nyke’s quickly-moving fingers. It offers us a picture, hints at a voice, after which it’s gone.

Senior Arts Editor Erin Evans will be reached at


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