by Josh Code / Palo Alto Weekly
Medical professionals told Bernie and Linda Weiss “not to expect much” of their profoundly deaf son, Darren. He would probably never speak, they said.
“Chef Darren: The Challenge of Profound Deafness,” is Menlo Park filmmaker Dorothy Fadiman’s latest work, a documentary on Darren’s journey from a childhood isolated by deafness to the opening of his own award-winning restaurant in Southern California. The film will premiere June 3 in Palo Alto.
“Many of my films are inspired by challenges others face that would have stopped me,” Fadiman said. “It (the film) is a microcosm of what I think is important in life, which is to get through places that appear impassable and impossible.”
With “Chef Darren,” Fadiman tells the story of Darren and his parents facing the challenges of deafness together as a family.
“Every waking moment was a language lesson (for Darren),” Bernie said. “Everything had to be taught.”
Bernie and Linda trained Darren to communicate using a strict auditory method. Their goal was twofold: to have Darren be not only able to understand his parents, but also capable of producing intelligible speech on his own. They did not let him use sign language in hopes that he would focus on producing speech orally. Fearing backlash from other deaf individuals, the Weiss family was initially very private about the specifics of their story.
“That was our cross to bear,” Bernie said.
While making “Chef Darren,” Fadiman found the topic of parenting a deaf child to be extremely sensitive.
“I had to be careful because the deaf community has very special and particular ideas about the way you should approach communication,” Fadiman said. “Bernie and Linda chose a path for how their profoundly deaf child would learn to communicate. One of the hardest things for me was making sure that other approaches (to parenting deaf children) didn’t sound wrong.”
Bernie and Linda struggled to share Darren’s story when he was young for this very reason.
“We avoided the deaf community,” Bernie said. “We didn’t want Darren to grow up thinking of his deafness.”
According to Bernie, Darren’s speech was “well-settled” by late adolescence, and it wasn’t until then that Darren began to interface with other deaf people. By the time he graduated high school, Darren had taught himself sign language and befriended other deaf people in his community.
Drawn to and talented at cooking from a young age, Darren is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York. His restaurant, located in Manhattan Beach, is known for “locally sourced ingredients and the rich flavors of the Pacific Rim,” according to the restaurant’s website.
For Fadiman, watching Darren and his wife, Sawalin, then raise their own family was just as inspiring as Darren’s personal story of perseverance and success in his chosen career.
In the film, Fadiman emphasizes the family dynamic of Darren, Sawalin and their son, Noah. Sawalin is also deaf and communicates solely in sign language. Noah is hearing, and communicates with his father both orally and through signing.
Fadiman first met Darren’s father when they were high school students in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They have been friends for 65 years.
In her four decades as a filmmaker, Fadiman has gotten used to the recognizable titles of “Oscar-nominated” and “Emmy-winning.” She has produced 25 films, seven of which have appeared on PBS. Fadiman debuted her first film, “Radiance,” in 1978 and hasn’t stopped making films since. In 2008, she co-authored the book, “Producing with Passion: Making Films That Change the World” with author Tony Levelle.
Fadiman hopes to connect those attending her screening to the Palo Alto nonprofit Abilities United, an organization committed to inclusion of and advocacy for individuals with developmental disabilities. Abilities United is co-hosting the event and will present Heidi Feldman, a professor of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at Stanford University, who will lead a discussion on child language disorders at the screening.
“I’d like to introduce the Abilities United community to a new audience,” Fadiman said. “One of my high hopes is that we can introduce at least 100 more people to the Abilities Unified community.”
“Chef Darren: The Challenge of Profound Deafness.”
Where: Lucie Stern Community Center ballroom, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Sunday, June 3, 3-5 p.m.
Info: Go to Concentric Media.