As voters across the Academy branches mull over their Oscar nomination ballots, among the films they’re considering are two that deal with the Deaf experience. One, CODA, is the fictional coming of age story of a girl raised by Deaf parents. The other – Audible – tells a coming of age story as well, but this one is real.
The short documentary from Netflix, directed by Matt Ogens, centers on Amaree McKenstry, a senior at the Maryland School for the Deaf in Frederick, who grew up in a family where he was the only Deaf person.
“I do feel lonely,” Amaree says in the film. “When I was a kid, they would just talk around me. And I didn’t understand any of it, so I’d just go off on my own. When I run into hearing people out in the world, I feel, as a Deaf person, I am alone.”
For McKenstry, attending a school for Deaf kids means everything – the chance to be immersed in Deaf culture, alongside students and teachers who communicate in ASL. As the film explores, he finds a further source of camaraderie – a band of brothers, in a sense – as a teammate on MSD’s highly-competitive football team.
Ogens is not hearing impaired himself, but he says he felt a strong connection to MSD.
“I grew up in Maryland, my best friend is Deaf,” he explains, “my aunt even taught sign language at the school.”
He began work on the documentary project a decade ago.
“I knew that I wanted to tell a coming of age story. And, so, I wanted to tell it through seniors right on the cusp of graduating high school,” he tells Deadline. “For any senior that’s sort of a gateway into the adult world, the bigger world. Imagine if you’re deaf and going into a hearing world — not that they hadn’t experienced it before — but more so leaving that utopia of the Maryland School for the Deaf.”
Helping Ogens navigate the story was executive producer Nyle DiMarco, a Deaf actor and model who won both America’s Next Top Model (season 22) and Dancing with the Stars (also season 22). He’s an MSD alum, and played on the Orioles football team in his day – before switching to volleyball.
“Oh, it’s a football school,” DiMarco emphasizes. “I was already powerlifting there at age 13 as a student because I knew that that was really the next step. I mean, it’s just a different kind of training, like Olympians do. You really get started at an early age because the [athletics] culture is so very much ingrained in the area, as well as watching out for those grades to stay eligible.”
Most importantly, what DiMarco brought to the documentary was an understanding of what it means to be Deaf, and a conviction that other films on the subject haven’t properly represented the Deaf community.
“Most of the time, what we’ve seen in movies and television that have been produced about Deaf people is a lack of involvement behind the camera leads to a lack of authenticity, and so often it’s a mess,” he comments. “I was thrilled to be a part of this to provide not only a Deaf perspective, but also to provide a reflection to the rest of Hollywood — to show that it’s critical to hire Deaf people as part of every step of production.”
DiMarco grew up in a significantly different environment than McKenstry, in terms of communication.
“Most of his hearing family doesn’t really sign — you see his father obviously still trying to learn and his mother is not quite fluent,” DiMarco notes. “I was born as the fourth generation in my family — two brothers, parents, grandparents and even great grandparents — who were all Deaf. So, I never really have that feeling of loneliness and isolation… For Amaree, the football program at a school was really an escape to a place that was much like my own dinner table.”
DiMarco adds, “I think the main takeaway for a hearing audience certainly will be to see the importance of Deaf education and Deaf schools because they provide a safe place for Deaf kids today to really experience their community. Our schools more than ever are starting to close and we’re seeing budget cuts and forced mainstreaming, which I think a lot of people are questioning the validity of. We see great benefit here for Amaree and his football program and just how important that is.”
Amaree’s best friend, Teddy Webster, attended MSD but then transferred to a hearing school where he was bullied for being Deaf. He took his own life, a heartbreaking loss that hangs over McKenstry, and the other main subjects of Audible, Amaree’s girlfriend Lera, and their friend Jalen, a gay cheerleader at the school.
“Teddy, I would say, is a very present character in the film, in a tragic way,” Ogens observes. “I thought he epitomized some of the challenges perhaps that a Deaf teenager might go through.”
DiMarco’s brother Neal appears in the documentary – he was a member of the MSD football coaching staff and in the fall will be occupying a new position of leadership.
“When we were filming Audible, he was working as the defensive coordinator,” DiMarco says, “and now he’s taking on the role as the head coach.”
As for the filmmakers, their future could involve an Oscar nomination, if voting goes their way. To use a football analogy, they’ve made the playoffs by earning a spot on the Oscar documentary shortlist.
“It’s really meaningful for me,” Ogens says. “Especially for the people in the film and the Deaf community and elevating them, giving them a voice, is really humbling for me.”
DiMarco adds, “For me, it’s a feeling of not only just being flattered, but also to have an audience that is so captivated by this story — especially a story that really is specifically from my own community, from a Deaf school, from our culture — it just helped me realize that we have a lot more stories to share that have not been told.”
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