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Despite Deafness, USC Film Student Pursues a Career in Movie Industry

One day last week Zora Finnstrom walked into a USC auditorium, removed her gray, plaid suit jacket and slipped into a blue smock.

The Glendale housewife pulled a chair to the front of the room, turned it toward the class and sat down. When Cinema-Television lecturer Steve Simpson started his discussion on lighting, Finnstrom began signing for a slender, blonde deaf student seated in front of her.

Wearing a yellow sweater and a matching skirt, Kristine Finnstrom watched her mother carefully, narrowing her eyes in confusion or nodding with bright eyes, indicating that she understood.

Signing by Light

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Later, as a professor showed an Australian film in a darkened auditorium, Zora Finnstrom placed a flashlight on the arm of a chair, pointed it toward her smock and signed the film dialogue in the small, spotlighted area.

Kristine Finnstrom, a 21-year-old junior transfer student, is completing her first year in USC’s School of Cinema-Television. She is the first deaf student school sources can remember in the cinema or television curriculum, which started in the 1920s.

In addition to attending lectures and movies, she shoots and produces films, supplying the sound with the help of a classmate, and acts in a drama class, where her mother reads her signs and speaks her lines.

Although hearing-impaired Marlee Matlin recently won an Academy Award playing an embittered former student at a school for the deaf, Finnstrom is not considering a career in front of the camera.

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She wants to caption talking pictures and to make educational films for the deaf. In pursuit of that goal she has earned a 4.0 grade average in her major, elating administrators who agonized over admitting her to the program.

“She’s obsessed,” said Richard Jewell, chairman of the critical studies program in the School of Cinema-Television. “She’s one of the hardest-working students I’ve ever been around.

” . . . I think she feels she found something she loves and no one is going to keep her from learning as much as she can.”

Zora Finnstrom, who is signing in half her daughter’s classes until she finds interpreters for those lectures, agrees.

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Last spring Kristine Finnstrom was headed for a perfect 4.0 grade average studying math at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

Trouble was the 1984 Glendale Hoover High School graduate was more interested in Fellini and Hitchcock than in Pythagoras and Einstein. She spent all her spare time watching and reading about movies.

“Math was not in my heart anymore. I got tired of numbers,” she said recently in the living room of her parents’ two-story, hillside home as her hearing sisters, Kara, 16, and Ericka, 14, sat nearby.

“When I got a bad grade on my test, I knew I could not concentrate,” Kristine said, signing to her mother who translated her words. ". . . I really wanted to make movies my career.”

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Fascinated with films since childhood, she decided to transfer to a new school. She took finals in Rochester two weeks early, arrived in Los Angeles on May 9 for registration and started summer classes at USC the next day.

USC professors were not sure how she would fare on a campus that has only five deaf or hearing-impaired students among an enrollment of 28,000, said Lynne M. Bejoian, director of the Office for Students with Disabilities.

“Her application came in and we agonized,” Jewell said. “We could not conceptualize how someone with her problem could succeed in our program.

“Film is supposed to be visual but it depends so much on sound,” Jewell said. But “she had a marvelous record in her school work and when we talked to her mother and to Kristine we decided that she should have a chance.

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“It turned out so much more wonderful than we could anticipate. . . . I think she is one of the most amazing people I ever met in our scholarly atmosphere.”

Since lectures are “a little too fast sometimes,” Kristine Finnstrom relies on notes from other students to put concepts together. In films she studies faces, camera work and direction.

Her success follows academic triumphs in every school she attended after her parents discovered her deafness.

Zora Finnstrom said that her daughter laughed, cried and giggled like hearing children during her first year. She played by herself and seemed to respond to everything around her.

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When Finnstrom asked her pediatrician why Kristine hadn’t spoken by her first birthday, the doctor said many children didn’t speak until they were 2.

One day Zora Finnstrom entered the bedroom where Kristine slept and accidentally dropped a toy on the floor. She stood rigid hoping the child would not wake.

“The thought that I hoped she wouldn’t hear still gives me a chill,” she said. “I walked over to the crib and said her name softly. She didn’t stir. I said it louder and finally shouted at the top of my voice, almost hysterically.

“My voice broke into sobs and I sank to my knees beside the crib. I was numb. I don’t know how long I stayed there, but my husband, Ed, found me there when he came home.”

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The Finnstroms wanted a large family and flew to her ancestral homeland in Yugoslavia and his in Sweden to find out if deafness ran in the family.

They found no severe hearing losses, and when they returned to California Zora Finnstrom underwent tests and learned that she had contracted rubella during pregnancy. High fever had damaged nerve endings in Kristine’s ears and affected her heart. Kristine underwent open heart surgery to correct a murmur when she was 5.

Kristine attended most of her grade school classes with deaf students, but in junior high she transferred to mainstream courses. She finished second in a statewide Latin vocabulary contest and graduated fifth in her junior high class of more than 400. Taking accelerated courses in high school, she completed her requirements with a 3.8 average out of a possible 4.0.

During this time she discovered film. Her father introduced her to Laurel and Hardy comedies, which she understood without sound, and she watched other movies. She learned that she enjoyed action.

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Her parents, who worried that she would fail in the movie curriculum, now say they are glad she gave up math.

“We felt that if she could put all her energy into this field because she loves it, she could succeed,” said Ed Finnstrom, a group insurance consultant. “If she could handle calculus, she could handle this.

“We knew there would be a lack of companionship at first. She had her friends in Rochester. But we both felt excited about pioneering a field. Now we’ll have to see which network or studio takes the first step to hire her.”

Until she gets a job making films or captioning talking movies for the deaf, Finnstrom would like to research, write, edit and consult on stories which help explain the deaf world.

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