Sign Language attempts some very difficult things. Humour is a challenge in it’s own right, and it’s even harder when it comes coupled with a narrative that the audience actually cares about. But Oscar Sharp’s mockumentary goes a step further and tries to squeeze all of this into a five-minute film. Produced in 2010, Sign Language pays tribute to the sign holders of Oxford Street, who were dispersed by a law banning the practice in Westminster. Main character Ben, a ‘static outdoor information technician’, is working his last day at his post before he moves on to better things.
The music (from Lampwigg) provides a gentle and sentimental atmosphere to the film, which contrasts with the ‘profession’ at it’s heart. Nobody usually gives a second look to the sign holders with the bustle of the city distracting them, and yet Sign Language is shot in a way that feels somehow intimate, even in the middle of Oxford Street. One highlight is the way that Ben introduces us to his workmates. Rather than approaching them, he simply describes them as the camera pans to show them at their posts. The lack of two-way dialogue here offers a chance for a rare sort of humour, with the main character’s commentary showing a stark contrast to the person seen on screen, or a line from Ben setting up a visual gag, for instance when we are introduced to Chris and Steve.
The subtle humour is almost reminiscent of Flight Of The Conchords. There are no slapstick gags or over-the-top one-liners here. Sign Language maintains a certain charm throughout, all the way to the way Ben’s colleagues say goodbye, which (although slightly predictable) proves an incredibly satisfying ending to such a short film.
A middle segment brings some depth to the film. Ben describes how he’s there to ‘point out less obvious things’, and speaks of the beauty of the city around him, even going as far as to quote Thomas Hardy. It feels just a touch out of place, and may have benefited from a more gradual transition from the humour, but there’s only so much room to work with in a five-minute film, and it only adds to the charm. It also serves as a gateway to the hidden narrative of the movie, as Ben gazes longingly at his female colleague. Yet this love story is not made overcomplicated by dialogue. The cliffhanger ending, as Ben turns and begins to walk towards the object of his affection, works well, and there’s even a little Easter egg waiting in the credits.
Overall, Sign Language has more depth than you might expect from such a short film. Oscar Sharp has managed to weave humour, meaning, and even a short romantic narrative skillfully and smoothly into a film that’s only five minutes long. A card at the end of the movie says that it was made in memory of the ‘board guys’ of Oxford Street. They’ll certainly be happy with their send off.