The Tuba Thieves, 2023.
Directed by Alison O’Daniel.
From 2011 to 2013, tubas were stolen from Los Angeles high schools. This is not a story about thieves or missing tubas. Instead, it asks what it means to listen.
From its title alone, d/Deaf filmmaker Alison O’Daniel’s The Tuba Thieves may invite expectations of a thrill-a-minute, stranger-than-fiction documentary about a bizarre heist, but O’Daniel instead uses this framing as a leaping-off point to do a rarest of things; represent the deaf experience on screen from an intimate, interior perspective.
Do a quick Google search and you’ll learn that the aforementioned spate of tuba thefts in Los Angeles high schools from 2011 to 2013 largely remain unsolved, and O’Daniel evidently doesn’t have much interest in mounting an investigation. Rather, the thefts serve as the backdrop for a free-flowing experimental project about the human relationship with sound, melding documentary with narrative recreations of those affected by the robberies.
The Tuba Thieves is as such a more unwieldy offering than the Netflix docu-series its name might imply; an experiential work of cinema focused on the role that sound plays in all walks of life. It’s an especially inviting proposition from a d/Deaf filmmaker, to focus so much of the film on the building blocks of sound that most of-hearing people will take for granted, placing a heightened emphasis on the tactile qualities of, say, leaves crunching underneath shoes.
O’Daniel cuts primarily between a number of subjects/actors, most notably a pregnant Deaf woman named Nyke, and Geovanny, a drum major of a band deprived of their tuba by the robberies. Nyke in particular proves an alluring protagonist of-sorts, in one memorable scene laying bare her fears as a Deaf, Black woman – above all else, failing to hear a police officer in her home. It’s a double blindspot for white hearing audiences, and almost certainly something they’ve never considered before.
Overall there’s little direct, pointed context to how the segments all slot together, though O’Daniel clearly wants us to luxuriate on the properties of sound both present and absent. Periodically she interrupts the “story” to serve up an impressively crafted reenactment of an iconic concert, most compellingly a 1979 punk show at San Francisco’s Deaf Club, skillfully juxtaposing the reenactment with seemingly real footage from the night in question. Prince fans will also appreciate a heart-warming tale of him playing a surprise concert for 1,900 deaf students at Gallaudet University.
But at its core this is slice-of-life doc filmmaking that seeks to generate empathy with and understanding of the deaf community. The scattered focus – including, at one point, a very brief detour into the history of tuba music – and unconventional throughline won’t be for all tastes, but there’s a nimbleness to O’Daniel’s work which ensures it sustains interest throughout.
Creative camerawork bring the various segments to dynamic life, but the real treat here is the creative sound design, which distends the sound of a tuba into a discordant drone and peppers the score with vibration-producing trilling – presumably for the benefit of deaf viewers.
Those hoping for a deep-dish heist documentary may be left disappointed by The Tuba Thieves, but Alison O’Daniel’s intimate window into the deaf experience delivers many rewards of its own.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.