Angelo Muredda reviews Big Ears Listen With Feet
“My ears are small, but my feet are well-grounded,” Boonserm Premthada jokes late in Big Ears Listen With Feet, Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine’s wry portrait of the award-winning contemporary Thai architect. A deaf creator who likens his artistic practice to the sensory knowledge of elephants, who perceive sound largely through their feet, Premthada is the film’s enigmatic guide. Unassuming and soft-spoken, and adorned throughout in a self-effacing style that includes a black surgical mask, a baseball cap, a thick geometric pair of glasses, and a tussled mop of hair, the architect walks the filmmakers and the viewer through the dense sensory wonders of where he lives and works, curating our experience. In the process, he trains us to experience the bustle of Bangkok through the lens of his disability aesthetic – attuning oneself to the vibrations all around us.
Bêka and Lemoine’s documentary is not a traditional talking-head biography, but an experiential travelogue. Their journey to Bangkok is structured as a series of lyrical diary entries, marked by white inter-titles against a black backdrop, which trace their whirlwind twelve-hour “blind date” with Premthada and his wife Paula. In response to the filmmakers’ request that he take them to the places he’s moved by, he counters that what moves him most is people, planning their itinerary to start at 4 AM at his building The Artisans Ayutthaya, a maze-like restaurant where the women-run staff rise at the crack of dawn to serve rice to the local monks. He encourages the filmmakers to observe the melodic, gentle rhythms of not only the women’s methodical work scooping ladles of rice into bowls – as well as one of the server’s artful work as a potter later in the day – but also the food preparation rituals of the monks themselves.
Despite his preference for people over places, the two become linked in Premthada’s tour, which circles back to the notion that disabled and nondisabled people alike anchor themselves in spaces through their sensory experiences of the world. The film begins with an illuminating Zoom conversation with Premthada before the trip, where he shares that his concept of space and sound stems from his childhood growing up deaf in a small one-room property in a densely packed low-income housing project. Here, he says, he could feel the thrum of the neighbours’ homes, and knew it was morning through the faint sounds and thumps of chicken’s feet outside his door, as well as his mother’s banging of pots in the nearby kitchen, the din rattling against the headboard of his fold-out mattress. With 30% hearing and a grasp of only low registers in one ear and total hearing loss in the other, Premthada says these sensory cues about the teeming life all around him served as a “natural clock that told me to wake up.”
This appreciation for the singular sensory experiences of the world that deafness affords echo in the filmmakers’ attentiveness to the numerous minor sensory pleasures of Premthada’s world – the precious sights and sounds of mewling cats, rice bowls clinking as they are set onto the floor of a temple, and feet squishing into wet clay. We are shown throughout how his dream of “letting architecture vibrate” permeates in Premthada’s designs, particularly shining through his uncanny brick structures in the Elephant World Project for the Kuy people of Surin. Here he runs an informal tutorial on what he calls spatialization, the way sound moves through space, clapping his hands as he walks through a narrow channel between brick walls, demonstrating how the sound bounces, amplifies, and undulates. “Being deaf,” he says, “brought me to be very sensitive to this.” Delighted at how his claps carry through the corridors he’s created, he marvels at how built environments can make space for such echoes as well as “gaps for the silence.”
Premthada neatly summarizes Bêka and Lemoine’s quiet observational aesthetic when he marvels at the connections between film and architecture, both of which, he thinks, “need some gaps for the silence, some space to let the viewer see and think.” It’s telling that he conceptualizes silence not as an empty but a fruitful space, full of the telltale vibrations of life. Without resorting to any tired clichés about disabled artists overcoming their disability or surmounting the loss of one sense with a heightened capacity for the others, the film adopts its subject’s refreshingly organic, matter-of-fact approach to the unique sensory experiences of embodied life as a deaf person and respects the way he channels that approach into his remarkable body of work.
Big Ears Listen With Feet is screening online as part of The International Festival of Films on Art (Le FIFA) until April 2.
Le FIFA: https://lefifa.com/en/catalog/big-ears-listen-with-feet
Angelo Muredda is a Toronto-based teacher, film critic, and programmer. His writing on film has appeared in outlets such as Cinema Scope, The National Post, The Walrus, Now Magazine, SHARP Magazine, and Film Freak Central. He teaches in the Department of English at Humber College, where he is also Reviews Editor for the Humber Literary Review.